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Seven Tears Shed

Tears of the Ocean; Seven Tears Shed

By Sayna



Echoes of Oceans, Tears of the Sea,

Were they worth tears of such as we?

The rose colored tears for which blood was shed,

Their owner shed them into the sea,

Forever safe from greed's clutches they'll be,

No more shall evil stain them red.


These seven tears shed,

A curse to the dead,

Though Ignasa's good will,

These none can fulfill.



Author's Note

Well everyone, this is it. The third and final book of my beloved 'Tears of the Ocean' trilogy. The previous book is The Ocean's Echoes. I know I spoiler a lot of things, but so far I've been able to keep most of this book under wraps. It's gonna be fun! (and tragic/bloody) *ahem coughcough*

Yes, that brings me to the matter of violence in this book. There is quite a bit. (I mean, come on. We're starting a four-way civil war here. Blood is going to spill.) So for some intense scenes, I'd say about PG-13. (Though PG movies seem increasingly violent, so IDK) Either way, just to be fair to everyone, there will be some potentially bloody scenarios. (Like LotR or something)

(I always think you'll find it more shocking than you really do, don't I?) :P

Anyways, who wants ghost ships, treasure, ninjas, dragons, magic, civil war, and dashing anti-heroes? If you do, you're in the right place my friend. ;P

Dedications, wonderful dedications ... this time's a bit different than usual, I have one very specific person I'd like to acknowledge in a short little story-type thing. ;) Cause really, you owe 'Tears' to her.

I have about one, close irl friend, and she likes writing/art as well. One time when we were hanging out, I started talking about a story idea I had .. what was going to turn into 'Tears'. And randomly my friend asks, "Hey, am I in any of your stories?" (cause we both use influences from rl) Well she wasn't ... not until that moment. She's been a great inspiration and comfort to me through what were some of my loneliest years, and I wanted to honor her in the highest degree.

I won't use her real name, but the character I molded just for her .. Grath Longfletch. I dedicate this book solely to her, because I might have given up writing without her encouragement. <3

And here's the fitting music! (with the song names this time) :) (The Island [1]) (Sky Sentinels [2]) (Wolves in the Woods [3]) (Dragonland [4]) (Sakura Sword [5]) (Silhouette of Honor [6]) (Arashi [7]) (Immortal [8]) (Dragon Empress [9]) (Brave [10]) (Lullaby of the Siren [11]) (My Name is Pirate [12]) (Return of the Hero [13]) (A Tale of Sea Dragons [14]) (The Brave One [15])



Chapter 25 Into the Wilds

The Bloodkeel sat silent near the shore of Sampetra in the early morning darkness, members of the crew licking their many wounds, or if they were lucky, having them seen to.

Rasconza held perfectly still as the hazel brown mouse slave cleaned a gouge running from his right shoulder to his elbow. Selina patted the slowly dripping blood away gently, with genuine concern in her eyes. “This is a serious wound, sir ..”

“I’m not going to die Selina, if that’s what you’re worried about.” Rasconza nearly smirked, but it came out as a grimace. “You won’t get a new master anytime soon.”

She kept her eyes everted, muttering, “That is not what I meant .. but it will be hard to control the crew with this.”

Rasconza gave her a hard look. “I can keep my crew in place with one arm missing.”

“Yes .. yes of course sir, I only meant ...”

“Stop patronizing me and do your job.” Rasconza said it in a fairly amiable but distant voice. “I want my arm bandaged, and quickly.”

Selina bowed her head, focusing on wrapping gauze around the fox’s arm as Slashback limped into the captain’s cabin. “Wull, what now captain? We’ve just sunk part of the imperial fleet ... we’re all in the same boat as ya.”

“As I recall, you’ve always been in the same boat as me.” Rasconza said it in a half sneering, half joking manner.

Slashback gave him a cold look. “Aye, but now we’re outlaws like ya.”

The dog fox smiled. “Of course. How am I to end the tyranny alone? Be glad Slashback, you’re doing something more noble than stealing from babes and drinking more than is good for you.”

The rat flattened his ears. “Look here capt’n, I don’t take kindly ta being used an’ tricked like that.”

“It’s the law of a vermin Slashback, are you a rat, or are you a mouse?” Rasconza sneered challengingly.

“I’m a rat through an’ through!” Slashback snarled. “Ya’ve got no right ta insult me capt’n.” Selina took a step back, having tied the bandage tightly.

Rasconza stood up. “I’m not insulting you, I’m asking a simple controversial question about what you plan to be. Slashback, you have served me well, and I am truly thankful for that. Now you can thank me.”

His first mate pinned his ears. “Fer what?”

“For saving you and this crew from a bloodbath. Oh, perhaps it wouldn’t have happened, you’ll say. Do you really want to take that chance? The Sampetra of slavery is about to turn into a battlefield. I know Romsca, and she is crazy. Whether she would die in the end or not, she is a ruthless murderer and she will fight. I said before, it will only take one beast who’s mad enough to speak out to start a war.” Rasconza crossed his arms, looking challenging.

Slashback said nothing for a few moments, before scowling. “Aye. Wull, what’s the plan?”

“The plan? We find a defensible place, we heal. Then we make Ublaz curse the day he was born.”

“Is that all?” The rat looked unimpressed.

Rasconza glanced at him out of the corner of his vision. “At this time. To be continued at a later date Slashback. After all ... you really don’t need to know more than that.”

He glanced at Selina, nodding at his first mate. “Slashback’s leg needs attention doesn’t it? Then you can take care of every other beast on this ship.”

“Sir, what about rowing?”

Rasconza waved a paw at her. “Devoted of you to wonder. I’m giving you the day off, I need your healing skills more than anything at this point. Now get to it.”

He turned to Slashback as Selina collected her supplies with the clank of the chains around her ankles. “Slashback. Do you know of any coves on this side of the island that would offer adequate cover?”

“Wull ... there are the Whispering Caverns, but I don’t know about sailin’ a ship inta one. It’s all new ta us back here, none a those places have been explored since ancient times.”

“Well then.” Rasconza adjusted his hat. “It looks like we’ll be the lucky explorers, eh?”

><><

The clopping of hooves echoed through silent streets, muffling the soft footsteps that accompanied it. Romsca was riding Summer, and despite Sayna’s protests insisted on holding the reigns herself. Xzaris sat behind her, and Durral and Shilo rode Barranca’s gray.

The others hurried on foot, and they did it as quietly as possible. Light was waning as the moon was setting in the early morning sky, but the mist was thicker than ever. It clung to the horses’ legs, to clothing and fur, and saturated the air with the dampness of the sea.

“It’s only several hours afore dawn.” Romsca muttered with a shudder. “Ya can almost smell mornin’ on the air.”

“Aye. An’ the sooner we’re free a here, the better.” Xzaris whispered his reply as his companion guided Summer’s steps down a short set of three or so stairs and onto the dock road.

Two sets of hooves made soft clops on the cobblestone street, and Romsca caught Durral staring behind and up at the magnificent, mist-shrouded city populating the side of the hill it sat on. “It’s a sight Abbotmouse, ain’t it?”

He shook his head slowly. “It’s amazing. The art that went into this place ... the intelligence, such to rival woodlanders. I didn’t expect vermin to be so creative and organized, to be honest.”

“Most vermin don’t live in the same place as long as we have Abbotmouse.” Barranca explained. “Sampetra has been here over a thousand seasons.”

Durral nodded silently, and the conversation fizzled out for a good five minutes as the group made their way along the ancient shore road. The rhythmic hoof-falls stopped as Romsca pulled back on Summer’s reins, and the other horse stopped behind them.

“I docked the boat near hear, cause there’s that tavern we passed. Ain’t it Sayna?”

She shrugged. “My vision’s not what it used to be captain, and fog plays tricks with your mind.”

“Aye, don’t it?” Romsca patted her mount’s neck. “But I think that’s the one.”

Xzaris growled a little. “Arg, if only I could see, I could tell ya fer sure.”

Durral looked skeptical, but Val spoke up. “Aye, he could. Stupid fog ... place sure looks familiar, but ... why do they build those dumb taverns practically alla same? Ain’t fair. I should know ... ”

“Let’s go look. Nobeast could see a thing in this mess.” Arashi started forward, paw poised to draw her katana at any second.

Barranca followed her, and the others did the same with a slight jingling and clopping. Val fell in beside Sayna, muttering, “Where are those Monitors? Ain’t natural how few there are tanight. An’ there should be guards too.”

The mouse kept her sword sheathed to conceal its glow, but she was tense. “To coin your phrase, aye. Your emperor is pretty loose on his defenses, for all you claim he is. One could sail a ship in here and he would never know.”

“Fool!” Barranca had heard her. “I assure you he would. For all you know, he’s known about this all along, and is simply playing one of his twisted games with us.”

It was a sobering thought, and Sayna inhaled, nodding. “I ask your forgiveness, Captain.”

“Forget the formality woodander. Just move.” Barranca vanished into the fog ahead, thicker and damper near the sea.

As they were walking past the old building, Romsca pulled her mount to a stop. “Shh!”

The group froze as foreign footsteps became audible, and Shilo flattened his ears. “Th .. the night patrols, they guard the bay c .. constantly ... I .. I forgot to map out wh .. where they all would be!”

“How many? Arashi hissed.

“P .. probably at l .. least five ...”

Sayna laid her paw on her sword hilt. “We can probably take that many, but if one escapes our cover is blown.”

“Don’t risk it, with me!” Barranca snarled softly. “And keep those horses quiet.”

The stoat ducked into the shadow of a small outbuilding, one that looked decrepit and lonely in the moonlit mist. He grabbed the door, pushing it inward and ducking in. “Come on!”

Arashi, Val, and Sayna hurried in after him, and Romsca pulled Summer back, letting Shilo and Durral take their mount in first. The doorway was just big enough, and Romsca glanced at Xzaris, sitting behind her. “Duck.”

There was just enough room to get the palomino through, and then the sagging rafters were uncomfortably close. Barranca shut the door as Romsca slipped to the ground, her torn sleeve catching on the saddle as she did so and ripping even more.

Val poked her in the dim light, muttering, “Good thing I grabbed a change a clothes fer ya. These look like a horse trampled ya while ya was wearin’ ‘em.”

“They’re fine.” Romsca muttered, but Val gave her a look.

Xzaris reached forward, laying a paw on Summer’s mane. “Do I git off or stay on?”

“I think ya best stay on ... keep him still, ok?” Romsca patted the horse’s nose, before walking slowly over to the others. Arashi was peering out the cracks of the wall, and Sayna glared at Romsca as joined them.

“I told you to stay on that horse.”

“I’m feelin’ better now.”

Sayna grumbled a little, but didn’t press the subject. Shilo crouched down in his saddle slightly, as the guard’s boots outside were audible.

“Who are ya? What are ya doin’ here?” The quiet but defensive hiss of a whisper came from behind them.

As silently as they could everybeast turned around, to see a silky brown stoatmaid standing in a faint splotch of moonlight, her light green dress giving her a surreal quality. Her right paw was extended, a dagger held out in a threating manner.

Arashi looked at her a moment, before stating, “Ye ... ye are the one that protected the injured sailor.”

Recognition flashed across the barmaid’s face, though she still held the dagger out, as if in precaution. “Aye, an’ who is ya?”

Arashi looked down at her fur as if realizing something, and muttered, “I got the water for ye.”

“Ya? Ya don’t look a thing like that beast.”

“Aye, I was ... disguised.” Arashi shrugged.

The stoatmaid didn’t look entirely convinced, but then she noticed Romsca. “C .. capt’n? What ...”

Romsca held a paw to her lips as the steps stopped outside for a moment, then continued on. The barmaid waited a few moments, before hissing softly, “Y .. Yer supposed ta be dead ... Kage said ...”

“Kage?” Romsca’s mouth dropped open. “As in a stoat? As in a the House a the Crab?”

“Y .. yes ..” She stammered. “He was one a yer crew, an’ he said the Waveworm went down with all hands sept him an’ the others in the lifeboat, an’ they was killed when it wrecked in the storm.”

Romsca looked around, asking, “Is he alright?”

The stoat slowly put her knife away, sighing, “I donno. I don’t got the money ta pay fer a proper healer, an’ he’s knocked ‘bout somethin’ awful. Lost a lotta blood an’ nearly drowned. I .. jist donno.”

She pointed at the huddled form on a blanket in the far corner. “I’ve been with him every second I could ... when Kia lets me off work, an’ that’s precious little time.”

Romsca looked over at Kage, shaking her head. “He was a good sailor, warned me a mutany an’ probable saved me life fer it.”

She reached into her satchel, rummaging around in it for a little and finally coming up with a few coins. “This .. ain’t ‘nough ta do nothin’ really, but ya can have it .. as parta his pay. Might help ya buy some herbs or bandages.”

The stoat took the coins, slipping them into the little purse attached to her belt as Romsca reached up for her earrings. “These are pure silver ... ya oughta be able ..”

Arashi stepped forward, interrupting. “Don’t bother with that.”

The older ferret dug in her own satchel, pulling out a fistful of gold and silver coins and dropping them into the stoat’s paws. “His pay.”

The barmaid gaped at Arashi for a moment, before her sharp brown eyes softened, mostly with confusion. “Why? Why would ya do somthin’ like that .. ya don’t gotta pay him, he can’t make ya, an’ I can’t either.”

“That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t.” Romsca snapped, looking frustrated. “I’m sorry I don’t got the money meself.”

The stoat raised an eyebrow, before slipping the coins into her purse. “Wull then. If ya give me that much, guess I don’t really care what yer up ta.”

“Aye.” Romsca nodded. “Ya never saw us.”

“Nah, course I didn’t capt’n ..... Xzaris?” She was looking behind the others at the mounted ferret.

He flicked his ears back, looking stiff. “Is that ya ... Merith?”

“Ya know her?” Romsca sounded counfused.

“She ... works fer Kia.”

Romsca was silent for a moment, before nodding. “Oh.”

Merith gave Xzaris an almost leering look, then smiled at Romsca .. a look that was nearly sincere and probably as grateful as she could possibly be. “Honest capt’n .. thanks.”

The fact the stoat had evaluated Xzaris’s condition and mocked him for it had not escaped Romsca. She lifted her chin slightly, gesturing at Kage. “It’s fer him. Not ya. See he gets proper attention.”

Merith blinked, then put her paws together and bowed. “Yes capt’n.”

Barranca tapped his foot on the ground. “Look, they’ve passed by. We need to go. Now.”

Arashi held up a paw. “Wait, where are we? Which tavern are we next to right now?”

This was directed to Merith, who shrugged. “What’cha think, Kia’s a course. How else would I work as many hours as she wants an’ still tend ta him?”

“I knew it, we’re ta far. We gotta go back the way we came.” Romsca scowled.

“Th .. the ratguards went that way.” Shilo shivered.

Barranca scowled. “Then let’s move .. see if we can evade them before the night’s over, if we’re in this city by dawn, all is lost.”

He opened the door, and Romsca walked over to Summer, trying to hoist herself into her saddle. It was harder then she’d expected, and it took several tries before she clumsily regained her seat, nearly knocking Xzaris off in the process.

Shilo and Durral’s horse was eager to get out of the building and left as soon as Barranca’s back was turned, despite the ratguard’s attempts to order him otherwise.

Romsca spurred Summer after them, into the misty darkness, and Sayna hurried out, followed by Barranca and Arashi.

Sayna pointed back along the shore road, the way they had come. “Quickly, that way!”

Arashi looked at Barranca, gazing at the faint grayness spreading along the horizon. “Aye, move.”

Romsca spurred her mount into a trot and Xzaris grabbed her around the waist to keep from falling off.

“Hang on an’ stay down.” She ordered, drawing her axe.

Val ran alongside them, scolding herself. “I shoulda known that was Kia’s tavern, how could I miss that?”

“It’s a rickety ol’ building in the fog, like alla other rickety ol buildings along the shore.” Xzaris replied a bit sarcastically.

Shilo yanked back on the gray’s reigns as voices become audible. Romsca pulled Summer to a halt beside him, and the others skidded to a stop near the two horses.

“Hide!” Arashi hissed, but it was too late, as two ratguards were already visible and had seen them.

The one that was apparently in charge whipped out his trident as five more hurried to his side. “Wha ...”

His voice was obviously shocked, and Barranca didn’t give him time to react. The stoat drew his saber, rushing forward and engaging him on the instant.

Arashi reached both arms above her head and behind her back, drawing both katana and rapier in the same second. “Take them all!”

There was the sound of scraping metal and a flash of blue light, one that brightened the melee considerably as Sayna drew her sword and jumped toward one of the guards.

Val pulled out her katana, bracing herself as she was faced with burly rat. He drove her back with two swift attacks, backing her against Shilo and Durral’s mount. The horse half reared, causing Val to tumble to the ground under its hooves and freeze as one thudded to the stones inches from her face.

The ratguard grabbed the gray’s bridal, yanking brutally on the reigns. This time the animal threw itself onto its back hooves with a strangled neigh as a little froth drooled from its mouth. Durral tumbled head over heels to the ground with a little squeak, collapsing flat on the cobblestones. The guard let the reigns go with a snap, and they flew back, slapping the horse on the legs and belly .. something that pushed the frightened gray over the edge.

It threw up its heals, tossing Shilo over its head as Val rolled away from the thrashing hooves. She leapt to her feet as Shilo slammed into Summer’s flank, and the palomino shied violently away, knocking the ratguard Barranca was fighting flat on the ground. The stoat didn’t hesitate to finish the fight in the instant.

The rat who had started the trouble grabbed Durral by the shirt collar, yanking him off the ground where he was lying in a half stunned state. Val’s boots pushed against the cobblestones as she lunched forward, yelling, “Oh no ya don’t!”

She slashed her blade into the back of the rat’s legs, and blood stained the ground. He collapsed on top of Durral, who struggled to drag himself from underneath the beast. Val grabbed his arm, yanking him free and away from the injured guard, who fought to move his useless legs and flung more than one dark curse at the vixen.

Durral staggered to his feet, asking breathlessly, “Wha .. what do we do with him? Tie him up? Take him hostage ... I’m trying to think like a pirate here .. I'm probably not doing a very good job of it .. but we can’t let him go.”

“Nope.” Val sounded disgusted. “I know this one. He pushed alla us barmaids ‘round an’ gave poor tips ... an’ now he wants ta kill us. But I know what ta do.”

She stepped foreward as the rat struggled to get to his knees, paw gripping his trident. Val gave him one long condescending look, before raising her sword above his head. Durral’s eyes widened. “Miss! You ... wouldn’t kill him! He’s defenseless!”

“Defenseless? But Abbotmouse ...” She took her gaze off the wounded guard for one second, and he grabbed her leg, yanking hard. Val yelped, staggering as he raised his trident to throw, and she swung her sword, knocking it from his paw. She slashed down at the back of his neck, and then yanked her foot from his nerveless fingers.

Durral stared at the body, then at Val. “You .. would kill a beast?”

“Abbotmouse, I was a barmaid. Barmaids halfta fight an’ halfta break up bar fights .. beast jist ain’t sensible when they’re good an’ drunk. Sometimes ya halfta kill ta keep yerself alive.”

She grabbed his paw, dragging him toward the docks. “Now help me secure a boat!”

Arashi was backed against an old boathouse, cornered by two guards, as several more had joined the initial five. The pounding of hooves rang out as Romsca sent Summer galloping for the rats, one leapt away, but the other fell to the ground, scream cut short as he was trampled.

Arashi launched herself at the remaining guard before he could regain his composure, plowing him over and impaling her rapier through his throat.

The action had fizzled to nothing now, except for one fight, the one Sayna was locked in. The light danced crazily as she parried the ratguard’s swift advances, too swift for her to swing her sword properly.

She growled, black eyes flashing with pure anger and frustration as the rat’s trident slammed into her blade, spontaneously shearing a prong from the weapon and throwing her back and to the ground.

The mouse rolled away as Barranca and Romsca moved to help her, but she snarled, using her sword to get back onto her feet. Her opponent ran forward and she didn’t move an inch ... not until the last second.

Sayna spun around, swinging her sword in a powerful arch, smashing it forcibly through the guard’s armor and deep into his torso. Mouse and rat stood frozen for a second, Sayna panting heavily, the ratguard’s breath frozen. He buckled and Sayna fell to her knees as he crumpled to the ground. She slowly got back on her paws, meeting Romsca’s gaze as she gripped her sword hilt and tried to dislodge it.

Romsca stared as white spread down Sayna’s discolored ear-tip to where it connected with her head. The ferret dismounted clumsily, asking, “Is ya alright?”

Sayna’s bangs spilled over her eyes as she muttered, “Yes.”

Barranca grabbed her sword and wrenched it from the bloody corpse, watching as the blade instantly went dull. He shrugged, holding the weapon out for Sayna to take. “Here mouse.”

She reached for it with a shaking paw, and Barranca frowned. “Are you wounded? What’s wrong?”

“No. I’m old ... truly old.” The mouse stood up straight, taking her sword, and its glow instantly flared up again.

Xzaris slipped off Summer’s back, but his foot hit the ground wrong and twisted beneath him, his other paw still caught in the stirrup. Romsca grabbed Summer’s reigns as the horse started, then craned his neck to look questioningly at the ferret lying flat on his back on the cobblestone streets, his left foot entangled in the tack.

Barranca took the reins, nodding to Romsca. “I’ll take the horse, you watch out for that boy before he kills himself.”

Xzaris was struggling to blindly pull his foot from the stirrup, and succeeded just as Romsca reached him. She grabbed his arm, helping to pull him to his feet again, though she struggled with his weight, not back to her full strength yet.

Arashi stepped forward, stating, “I’ll help.”

Romsca looked at the older ferret for a second, before nodding. Xzaris didn’t say anything, just let Arashi lead him, while Romsca followed. Sayna sheathed her sword, looking around as

Shilo staggered up, holding the side of his head. “Ahh ... wh .. what happened?”

The mouse offered him her paw, shrugging, “You were thrown off the horse I think, but I didn’t see a lot of it. Lean on me if you need to.”

Val was standing on the dock, motioning they join her. “I found yer boat Rom, but we need another one ...”

Barranca grabbed the mooring rope of a small skiff, and Durral blinked at him. “Isn’t that stealing, sir?”

“Ugh. No. It’s pillaging, let’s go.” The stoat stepped into the small boat, nodding to Sayna and Shilo. “You two and Arashi with me, Romsca, you take Xzaris, Val, and the Abbotmouse.

Arashi, lead the horse around the base of the dock and get it into the water.”

It took a few minutes to get everybeast in place; Romsca nearly fell into her rowboat as her dragging paws caught on the mooring rope. Xzaris carefully sat down between the oars, grabbing them clumsily. “I’ll row, one a ya use the tiller.”

Val helped Romsca sit beside Durral, before bouncing across the boat to the tiller, causing it to rock furiously. “That’ll be me!”

She reached up and yanked the rope holding them to the dock loose. “Capt’n Val, reportin’ fer duty, which way are we headed?”

“Out ta sea, then north.”

><><

Grath awoke early, before the sun had breached the horizon. She stepped out onto the deck in the cool gray light of pre-dawn, an early morning breeze rustling her hair.

There was a thump as Hood dropped from the rigging, landing perfectly, his cloak splaying out around him. He stood, nodding to her, white teeth showing from beneath his hood as he spoke. “All is quiet so far. No sight of land, or anything else.”

“Alright. Though we should be close, shouldn’t we?”

Hood shrugged. “I’m not the beast to ask. Talk to Plogg, Welko, or your otter friend.”

Grath cocked her head. “Do you not like him?”

The fox paused. “I didn’t say that. I am not against him, perhaps I should use his name. I just don’t know him at all, really.”

“Oh.” Grath nodded. “I’m sorry, I just never see your face, so I don’t always know what you mean by what you say.”

Hood turned his head slightly, muttering, “My face is better left unseen.”

Grath smiled, trying to make him feel better. “I’m sure it’s not that bad ...”

“Yes it is.” Hood tugged the concealing cloth farther over his features, and sighed. “You’re a good creature to try and comfort me. But I won’t be taking this hood off for anybeast. Inbar is in the captain’s cabin.”

Grath watched him walk away, and frowned, feeling bad. “I didn’t mean anything Hood!”

He cocked his head, pausing for a moment as a tiny smile showed on his muzzle. “I know.”

Grath watched him leave for a moment, before walking toward the captain’s cabin. She made a mental note to not mention Hood’s face again, as it seemed a touchy subject.

The otter pushed open the cabin’s door, smiling as she saw Inbar ... or more realistically, Inbar’s paws holding a map in front of his face. He pulled it down, starting a little. “Uhh .. Longfletch! Hi .. sorry, I didn’t hear you knock.”

“I didn’t knock ... sorry, I should have, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Oh .. no, no ... I mean, it is your ship.” Inbar ran webbed claws through his messy head fur, taking a breath that might have been slightly too deep. “So .. why are you here ... I mean, what do you want .. I mean ... that sounds stupid. Like I don’t want you here, which isn’t true .. cause .. I do .. want ... to help.”

His shoulders slumped. “Sometimes I’m not good at talking.”

A slow grin ran across Grath’s face. “It’s fine ... what were you reading?”

Inbar brightened up, eyes shining with some excitement. “So I found something that could be important .. this ship is just full of old pirate maps, and this one really caught my eye.”

He spread it out across the desk, over the map that was already there. “See?”

Grath scratched an ear. “Sorry, no ... it’s just a map of their island.”

“But think about it.” Inbar picked up the map he had his paws on, revealing the one that had previously been displayed. “Look at this one .. what’s the difference?”

“Umm .. it covers more territory?”

“True .... but not the right answer.” Inbar’s eyes twinkled. “Guess again?”

Grath frowned. “I ... don’t get it, sorry. Tell me?”

Inbar nodded. “Sure, look here.”

He set the map of Sampetra down again, running his paw over it. “Do you notice the absence of anything ... say names of things? Look how empty this map is! There’s a few names here and there ... Whispering Caverns .. the city ... the bay ... hmm, creative ..”

Grath snorted at the mischievous face he was making, and he grinned. “But seriously Longfletch, see what I mean?”

“I suppose, yes. But what if it was just unfinished?” Grath shrugged, raising an eyebrow questioningly.

“Yea, I thought that too at first. But do you see any other cities besides this one? Any other bays aside from the ones surrounding it? And look, they just call the rest of the island ‘The Wilds’. It looks like the pirates don’t even live on most of this island ... or even know what’s there.”

“Huh. It could be ... but the question is why?”

Grath and Inbar exchanged glances. The male otter answered her carefully. “That’s the thing ... these are pirates. They’re tough, dangerous, and greedy ... the only reason they wouldn’t populate that entire island and have multiple cities all over it is if they physically couldn’t.”

“So ... there’s something wrong with it, maybe?” Grath looked like she hoped he had the answer.

Inbar shook his head. “I have no idea, but I intend to do my best to find out. Care to help me sort this old treasure trove?”

Grath smiled happily .. something about Inbar’s cheerfulness was infectious. “Why not?”

><><

“Where did ya say it was again?” Val was holding the tiller, and she spoke the words in a wide yawn.

Romsca had fallen asleep sitting up, and was softly snoring. Durral shook her a little, and the ferret blinked her eyes open to see the gray, still misty dawn. “Where what was ... oh, Waveworm. Wull ...”

She looked around in confusion. “This ... looks like the entrance ta the cove we moored it in, right Abbotmouse?”

He nodded. “Yes, remember those reefs?”

“Yea. But where’s the sails? I should be able ta see ‘em from here.” Romsca started to look worried, and looked over at the skiff, sailing nearby. “Sayna, does that look like the right cove ta ya?”

Shilo waved his paws. “Shhh! Sh .. she’s really tired ... I .. I think she needs sleep.”

Sayna sat up slowly, muttering, “Who needs what now?”

Romsca pointed at the cove they were nearing. “Me ship! We should be able ta see the sails from here, right?”

“Wherever it is, we better get to land, this horse is tired.” Arashi was leaning over the back of the skiff, holding a struggling Summer’s bridal. The old steed bore it in silence, half swimming, half letting the boat tow him.

The small boats pulled into the cove, and Romsca sat in stunned silence. Barranca spoke first. “The Waveworm’s not here ... are you sure this is the right bay?”

Romsca didn’t answer, just stared at the place her ship had been anchored. “M ... me ship! Me dad’s ship! It’s ... gone!”

“Aw, come on sis ... ya misplace things a lot, but a whole ship?” Val looked incredulous.

“It’s not misplaced!” Romsca waved a paw at the empty cove. “It was here. I swear it was right here ... some no good stole me ship!”

She clenched sharp fangs together, growling gutturally, “An’ I bet I know who ... Ublaz! We gotta git outa here!”

“Without a ship, we can’t go any farther on water.” Barranca scowled, giving Summer a look. “Besides, that horse looks about ready to drown. Let’s get to dry land.”

It took a few minutes to row to shore, but the old horse made it, staggering onto the rocky ground on shaking legs. Arashi pulled off her canteen and set about giving him a drink as the others climbed from the boats.

Romsca landed with a stomp, clenching her paw around her axe hilt and snarling. “When I git me paws on the wretch who did this ...”

Sayna looked up at her with dull eyes. “You’re feeling better, I see.”

“No, I’m feelin’ downright mad!” Romsca’s teeth flashed in the sunlight as she bared them, before wheeling around and hurling her axe into the trunk of a palm tree. “Yahh ... ahh!”

She gripped her shoulder as the axe sank into the tree with a thwack. Sayna shook her head. “Don’t overdo it. Take it easy, that is an order.”

“Hrmmm ... when will I have me full strength back?”

Sayna rubbed at her eyes a bit. “You need a full twelve hours sleep ... or more, considering what you did. Probably around two days.”

“Two days?” Romsca retrieved her axe with a groan. “It might as well be two months, with all we’re gonna halfta face ... we’re in the wilds! Do ya even know what ‘The Wilds’ means? A course not, yer just a mouse ... we need alla strength we have!”

She blinked, stammering , “I didn’t mean it like that Sayna ... but ya see me point?”

“Cause she’s got a good one.” Barranca huffed, glowering at nothing in particular, likely the whole world.

Shilo looked around with a fitful shiver. Xzaris made a noise that sounded something like ‘grump’.

Val hopped out of the boat with a yawn. “So ... does this mean we use my plan after all?”

She looked a little more excited than necessary. Barranca grumbled. “I suppose it does.”

Romsca slipped her axe across her back again, crossing her arms. “Ok, what was yer plan again Val, the whole thing?”

“Well ... I think we should find Lutran an’ then ..”

“Lutran?!” Romsca and Xzaris spoke at once.

Romsca tensed. “Lutran, the black otter?”

“Yea, he did have black fur. An’ these piercing dark green eyes ...” Val shrugged.

“That’s him.” Xzaris muttered.

Romsca frowned. “He hated me Val ... he called the curse a Ignasa on me an’ me father, he insulted me on multiple accounts, trying ta git me ta fight. I’m not sayin’ we didn’t deserve it. But ya want me ta place me life in that beast’s paws? He woulda killed me eight seasons ago if’n he’d had the chance, an’ I’ll bet he’d just love ta do it now. He might get along with ya Val, but mark me words, he’d love ta see the rest of us hanged ... he told me himself the only good vermin’s a dead one!”

Barranca growled, Arashi winced, and Shilo shivered. “I .. I hate th .. this place!”

Val crossed her arms. “Rom. Not helpin’.”

“Sorry Val, but let’s get real here. A beast like that is flat out dangerous ta us.” Romsca narrowed her eyes.

“Now ... let’s settle down.” Durral held up his paws. “I’m sure there’s a way to reason with him, if he’s a woodlander.”

“Don’t be sure of anything.” Sayna grumbled.

Val scowled, stomping a paw. “Everybeast, shut it!”

The vixen put her paws on her hips. “Look here, I saved his life! That’s gotta count fer somethin’, an’ besides, Lutran’s nice ... mosta the time. Wull .. half a the time. No .. actually he’s purty grumpy ... but he has a good heart, I know it. He’s not like us ... he’s not a pirate an’ he doesn’t raid an’ stuff like that. He’s a woodlander .. like Abbotmouse!”

“Val, Lutran is the total opposite of Abbotmouse.” Romsca huffed.

“But that don’t make him bad, does it? And besides, what else is we gonna do? Who wants to be bloody gnawed bones?”

Val met the dark looks directed at her with one equally as glaring. “S’what I thought.”

Sayna leaned against a nearby tree, grumbling. “Can we all get some rest? I’ve been up all night, toured a hostile city, and been in two fights. I hate to admit it, but I need sleep. Soon. So does Romsca.”

Durral rubbed his back, nodding. “I .. could use some rest myself.”

“I think we all could.” Val flopped to the sand under the shading palms. “It’s been a long night.”

Xzaris nodded. “Ya kin say that again.”

“Fine.” Barranca groaned. “We’ll rest, the horse needs it and I didn’t get a good night’s sleep either.”

Arashi looped Summer’s reins around the trunk of a palm tree, low enough he could graze on the dune grass, before settling down in the shade herself.

Shilo curled up under his own tree as Sayna slumped to the ground, eyes closing wearily. Arashi used the tree she was under as a back rest, stating, “I’ll take first watch.”

Barranca nodded, closing his eyes. “Wake me when it’s my turn.”

Xzaris sat down on the opposite side of the palm Romsca had curled up under with a sigh. The ferret didn’t say anything for a minute, before muttering, “Hey Rom? Kin I ask ya somethin’?”

There was no real reply, just a soft snore, and Xzaris smirked, falling silent. By the time the sun rose, only Arashi was awake to see the mist seep away.

><><

“There sure are a lot of documents around here ... I wonder who owned this ship before. Do you know?” Inbar was digging through a dragon-embossed trunk.

Grath shrugged, looking up from the scrolls she was reading. “Just some pirate captain.”

She went back to reading, shaking her head. “This is a record of the raids he went on ... it’s terrible!”

Inbar sighed. “Yea ... just look at how many lives they recorded they took or enslaved. I’m glad I can be part of defending my home from the scum.”

“Yea.” Grath opened a drawer in the desk, pulling out another scroll and opening it.

She stopped on the instant, staring. “Inbar ... look at this.”

He walked over, looking over her shoulder. It was a painting, faded and dog-eared, but still quite obvious a skilled artist had made it. Three beasts were depicted, an older male and two youths, all with weasel and ferret traits.

“Wearets.” Inbar scowled. “So ... what’s the big deal?”

“This one.” Grath pointed to the slightly shorter youth, boyish face covered in dark unruly freckles that matched his dark unruly hair. “He ... I ... he looks a lot like one of the pirates that attacked my holt.”

“Are you sure?”

“No.” Grath shook her head. “It was dark and everything happened so fast, but there was one pirate who attacked me and my brother Lutran ... this picture looks a lot like him, just younger.”

The two otters looked at the painting a little longer, before Inbar nodded. “And I might have seen this one.”

He pointed to the taller boy, olive green eyes and chocolate brown headfur contrasting with the red strap wound around his forehead. “A pirate that looked sort of like this used to fish in our waters, but he stopped coming around a good eight seasons ago .. or more now. I’ve seen his ship, but a different captain has it, a female ferret.”

Grath shrugged, asking, “But what about the older one ... maybe this was his ship.”

“Hey, unroll it all the way.” Inbar pulled the end of the scroll out flat, picking up a scrap of paper that had been hidden.

He raised an eyebrow. “Writing ... and it’s surprisingly well written. Let’s see ... To my sons ..”

The otter paused, giving Grath a questioning look, and she nodded. Inbar continued. “To my sons, Conva and Barranca. I think my searching is about to pay off, finally, our family will get the respect we deserve. I’ve narrowed down the possibilities, and it seems the pearls must be somewhere on this coast ... once I find them, the set will be complete. No more being mocked for our mixed blood, and a better future for you boys. Never let them get to you, you are and always will be Dragons, and our story gets brighter from here, be brave. May Atlas give you fair winds ....”

Inbar shrugged. “And that’s it. It stops there.”

Grath scratched an ear. “It says once he finds the pearls ... the set will be complete. Like ... there’s another. And Waterlily’s books said there were! The seventh pearl ... must be on Sampetra already.”

“And if it’s there ... what does that mean?” Inbar shrugged.

Grath rolled up the note and picture again, stuffing it back in the desk. “Waterlily’s books said the pearls had some sort of power .. only as a complete set though. So if the pirates have the set ...”

“They have the power too.” Inbar finished.

“Right, and if they don’t have the pearls now, I bet they will soon.” Grath gnawed on her lip. “There’s got to be something we can do .. those pearls will only make them more powerful. We can’t have that! And I’m sure Durral and Sayna are prisoners in that city by now.”

Inbar raised an eyebrow. “So you’re saying we shouldn’t waste time, we should go directly there. But how will we evade them?”

“Under cover of darkness.” Grath stood up. “Our ship looks just like one of theirs, so if we docked in their bay late at night, maybe they wouldn’t notice.”

She frowned. “But I don’t know a thing about cities, I’ve always lived in a holt or the abbey and visited a few small towns; that’s really all there is in Mossflower. I do know somebeast who would know ... Plogg and Welko. They’ve traveled everywhere, I bet they’ve been in cities. Let’s talk this over with them.”

><><

The gray light of early morning spilled through the palace’s colored windows, but it wasn’t the reason the emperor’s sleep was poor. Ublaz tossed and turned in his fine silk sheets, claws rending them worthless.

He half sat up with a jolt, pale eyes snapping open. The next moment he let himself fall back onto his pillows, sighing deeply to start to regain his lost composure.

The pine marten watched the canopy over his elegant bed rustle in the breeze from a half open window, his eyebrows creasing together in a frown, though his lips remained still, frozen in neutrality.

He had cleared dreams from his mind many seasons ago, but the long lost nightmare had returned. Ublaz allowed his mouth to twist into a faint scowl at last, before sitting up. It wouldn’t return, he would see to that.

The emperor slipped his feet out of bed and into his curled slippers, drawing his robe about his shoulders as he shut the window. Ublaz stopped in front of his mirror, and was in the act of reaching for a comb when a uniform but loud knocking pounded on the door of the outer room. “Sire, we have a problem. If I could speak with you ...”

Ublaz clenched his jaw. Another problem; as if he hadn’t had enough of those in the last four days. He smoothed his straight brown hair back, before fixing his neatly clipped mustache and replying, “How urgent of a matter is it General?”

“The remains of seven ratguards were found on the shore by the dawn patrols, Captain Barranca’s horse was found outside his manor and he is no longer there, Captain Xzaris is missing from his cell, and my son is nowhere to be found.” The answer was a little strained for Sagitar’s normal commanding voice.

Ublaz clenched his paw around the comb he was holding so firmly the fine tortoiseshell it was fashioned from snapped in half. “I will join you as soon as I am able General.”

The pine marten kept his cool demeanor as he dressed, though the stress of not being able to check up on Rasconza and the thought his pearls were on the ocean’s floor was weighing heavily on his facade of complete control.

“Controlling the mind is the secret to controlling ... controlling oneself is the secret to controlling all others.” Ublaz muttered it to himself, folding his paws and closing his eyes, breathing evenly for several moments.

All would be well. He was still Emperor of Sampetra, and there was security in the power he held. He wound his turban around his head, ignoring his uncurled whiskers and claws that needed filing for the moment.

Ublaz’s jewel-edged boots made soft clicks on the marble as he walked into the outer room of his chambers, cape sweeping behind him. He ignored the two monitors standing guard and opened the door leading into the hall.

Sagitar stood waiting for him, a ratguard on either side of her. “Sire ...”

She sounded ruffled, and Ublaz held up a paw. “Thank you General, I’m sure you’ve done all you could and maintained order as always. You two, be on your way.”

The two guards bowed low and scurried off. Ublaz rotated a paw in Sagitar’s direction. “Walk with me awhile General. Tell me all that has transpired.”

“Yes sire. As I said, the dawn patrol found the bodies on the shore.”

“What was the cause of death?” Ublaz pressed.

Sagitar shook her head. “It is hard to say sire, they were mangled by the time they were found. Apparently some of the monitors became hungry and ate most of the corpses ... or they killed them, I cannot prove it though.”

“Hmm ... I must tone down their carnivorous instincts upon their creation, it could save us some confusion in these cases. But I can easily discover whether this was an experiment gone wrong or foul play. Continue, General.”

She nodded. “A dapple gray horse, a stallion, was found at the gates of Barranca’s manor, which has been deemed empty. The horse too, was identified as his. Also, a fishing skiff has been reported missing.”

Ublaz pressed the tips of his fingers together, muttering, “He fled eh? I couldn’t expect much more from him. Go on.”

“Xzaris, whom you disciplined and imprisoned, was found missing from his cell this morning. However this, I believe, amounts to the least of our problems ... I saw him last night, he was on the brink of death. So being, I ordered the guard to throw his body on the shore should he die in the night, as is custom.”

“And who was the guard?”

Sagitar looked away. “My son sire, Shilo.”

“Ah, the timid one.” Ublaz raised an eyebrow. “Tell me, what of his sincerity?”

“Sire, the boy is a shame to me and the ratguard, but he is not a traitor. I had hoped ... but no. I understand the thought, but I’ll vouch for him. He’s too timid to risk my anger, and besides, what honest motives could he have? No, I believe Xzaris died and Shilo did as he was ordered ... but to go alone ... silly fool ...”

Ublaz could feel the restrained depression from his general crackle through the air like static, and something stirred in him. He laid a paw on her shoulder, and she stopped to look at him in surprise.

“General, I believe you in this. And I hope, for your sake, the boy is alright.”

Ublaz surprised himself with the certainty and solemn sincerity in his own voice, and Sagitar straightened her shoulders beneath his paw, reply quiet. “Thank you sire.”

She let her gaze fall to the ground. “But I don’t think he is. You see, a small, black furred body was found among those on the shore.”

Ublaz slowly let his paw slip away, and he looked away too. No emotion shone in his eyes, but he was not smiling; his lips were pressed together in a grim line. “I can say nothing General, but that I’m truly sorry this had to happen.”

“It’s fine.” Her voice was harsh and raw. “Death is part of life, and without loss there is no gain. He was too cowardly to be anything but a disgrace to me, just like his father, who’s been dead these nine seasons.”

“Nine seasons ...” Ublaz began.

“The rebellion.” Sagitar said it as though it was nothing but a fact. “Captain Sculrag, who was burnt alive for defiance of the Emperor.”

There was silence as Ublaz folded his paws behind his back, walking a few paces away. “General ... how is it you serve me so loyally, when I have unknowingly taken so much from you?”

“You are my emperor, I live to serve the emperors of Sampetra.” She sounded slightly confused. “You are the greatest of them all. Your word is law. Sacrifice is simply a part of life.”

“That is not truly your root motivation.”

She sighed. “You know me too well sire. Fine, I will admit it. You are the most powerful ruler I have ever seen, and as second in command, I have great power also. Moreover, I greatly respect your cunning, and aspire to learn half your wit and tact. Is that fair enough?”

Ublaz didn’t turn around. “It is an admission, and I knew all that. But it suffices. I am sorry for the losses I caused you.”

“Both of them were failures.” Sagitar snapped. “Mere echoes of what I wanted or could hope for. You sire, are the leader I always dreamed of serving. You do not disappoint.”

Ublaz turned, nodding slowly. “Very well General. I know how to discover the truth about the guard’s deaths. Meanwhile, issue warrants for Barranca’s arrest and seize his property. He is now to be arrested on sight and brought to me, alive.”

Sagitar bowed. “It will be done.”

><><

Romsca awoke slowly, blinking her eyes open to see the sun was directly overhead, or even a little past it. The ferret uncurled out of the ball she’d been sleeping in, stretching with a yawn. She blinked, looking around to see all the others asleep but Arashi, who was standing, looking the opposite direction.

Romsca slowly stood, walking over to her. “I thought Uncle was going to take the next watch.”

Arashi turned to look at her, before leaning against the palm behind her and shrugging. “He’s hard to wake up. I thought ye’d be asleep longer though.”

“I’m a capt’n. I ain’t used ta sleeping fer very long at a time, just catnaps here an’ there. Even when it wasn’t good fer me.”

Arashi nodded silently, giving Romsca a sideways look for a moment as if wishing to say something, but holding it in. Romsca sighed, meeting the older ferret’s dark eyes. “Are .. ya really me mother?”

“Yes ...” Arashi turned to face her, shaking her head. “Ye are so much older now ... I missed all the seasons ye needed me.”

Romsca blinked for a moment, before shrugging. “Be glad ya did. Who knows if Ublaz woulda let ya live.”

She was silent for a moment, before muttering, “I’m sorry ... I just donno how ta react ta this. I ... can’t even imagine havin’ a mother ... but I’m ... glad ya ain’t dead. Maybe I can get used ta the idea.”

Arashi sighed. “I understand, it’s not like ye would remember me. But at least I can take comfort in the fact Conva loved ye.”

Romsca looked away, out towards the open sea. “He was ... the most loyal of fathers, an’ he loved me even ta death ... I should have died, not him.”

“Do ye really think that is what he would have wanted?” Arashi asked.

“It ain’t about that, it’s about justice.” Romsca scowled. “It’s never been off me conscience, an’ it ain’t ever gonna be ... I let the pearls be lost, not dad.”

Arashi sighed. “And tell me, if ye had brought those pearls to Ublaz, where would the world be now?”

“I donno.” Romsca’s voice was a whisper. “Maybe once I woulda said it’d have made Sampetra more powerful, like that’d been a good thing. But now I can’t even stand by me own nation, everythin’ I once was is wrong ... I just wish I could do it over again, alla it.”

Arashi laid a paw on her daughter’s shoulder. “The past means as much to us as the future does ... nothing. Ye never live in either, just today. It is today’s actions that will change tomorrow, and that’s all we can do.”

Romsca met her gaze, before looking down. “I know.”

“Ye are troubled?”

“I’m always troubled.” Romsca snorted. “The ghosts of yesterday love ta torment me, whether in day or in night. Since I met Ignasa ... it is better. But they ain’t ever far.”

She turned her head away, sighing, “I’d rather not talk bout dad, unless ya need ta know what happened ... but I’m guessin’ Xzaris told ya.”

“Ye saw?” Arashi asked in a little surprise.

“Ublaz made sure we all did. Uncle, me, an’ Raf. He tried ta kill me after he beheaded ... dad, but I killed my executioner an’ fer some reason he let me live.”

Arashi let her paw slip away, and she didn’t answer, but the sorrow in her eyes was obvious. Romsca shrugged, sighing, “I made it out ok. Uncle finished trainin’ me an’ Raf was loyal ta me. I was a captain by the time I was sixteen, an’ I managed our old manor ... kept it in the family all those seasons. An’ I wouldn’t sell Summer either.”

She sighed. “I just got by though ... our wealth is drained ta nothin’.”

“Ye did your best, I am sure.” Arashi comforted her. “And to be honest, none of that even matters anymore.”

Romsca shrugged. “I guess it really don’t. Now we just haveta see if Val’s plan’ll work. I’m doubtin’ a good outcome.”

“Whatever happens,” Arashi stated, “Please don’t die again. I don’t know how it works ...”

“Ya an’ me both.” Romsca snorted. “That was one of the craziest things ta happen ta me ... freakish. I won’t unless there is no alternative .. I had no choice. I couldn’t live with more guilt ... I jist ... couldn’t.”

There was a movement behind them as Val stood up, brushing sand out of her tail. “What’cha talkin’ ‘bout?”

Romsca stood straight again, shaking her head. “Nothin’ as such. Though I’m ready ta move ... there ain’t enough cover here, we’re liable ta be spotted by gulls.”

She looked inland, up the small cliff-like hill and into the verdant stand of bamboo. “But I get the feelin’ we’d be hard ta spot in that mess.”

><><

It took a little time to stow the boats behind some large boulders on the shore and remove all telltale traces of their presence, but Barranca was determined to leave no trail. Sayna was not herself, the rest she’d had was not enough to give her strength again, and consequently she ended up riding Summer with Shilo, despite her weak protests.

The sun was warm overhead, but the towering stand of bamboo they were now in cooled them considerably. It was slow going however, for the grass was unkempt and wild, growing wherever it pleased and as tall as it pleased.

Val stared up at it, poking Romsca. “It never gits this big inna city. Makes ya feal like an ant or somethin’, don’t it?”

The ferret shook her head in reply, holding onto Xzaris’s paw in effort to keep him from running into the plants on multiple accounts. He ran his free paw down a nearby stalk, asking, “That’s bamboo?”

“Wild bamboo, yea.” Romsca nearly tripped on a thick root. “Watch yer step here.”

Val jumped over some smaller plants. “Hey, we kin pertend ta be bugs, fun right? Too weird.”

“Not fun.” Barranca snapped, passing her. “Keep moving and keep silent.”

Val scowled, muttering, “Wull who dropped yer skilly ona floor huh?”

Arashi heard the vixen in passing and snickered in spite of herself. Durral tripped, and didn’t get up right away. “Captain sir ... can we .. rest a little? I’m not used to hiking this much.”

“That’s what the horse is for isn’t it?” Barranca was not in the best of humors. “Ride it, we’re not stopping.”

Durral grumbled a little as he got to his feet, neglecting to bother dusting himself off and continued on, as they all did.

The sun was beginning it’s slow descent in the western sky before they found anything .. that being a stream. It carved a shallow but rocky path for itself, sparkling across a bed of browns and slate grays, curving and flowing down small waterfalls.

The bamboo stopped near its edge, and so did the travelers. Val slid down the bank, cupping some of the crystal water into her paws. “Oh look, water! An’ no sign a the ghosts yet, I’d say we’re doin’ well.”

“And should I remind you the ghosts are known to only attack at night?” Barranca snapped. “They’re obviously nocturnal.”

Arashi joined Val, refilling her water gourd. “The stream is an asset though.”

Barranca grumbled, but conceded in that he said no more. Durral removed his boots and dipped his paws into the water with a sigh while Romsca slipped as she was trying to help Xzaris down the bank. The two ferrets tumbled into the stream, thoroughly soaking the mouse.

Xzaris surfaced with a gasp, fur half spiked and half sodden. “Gaah ...”

Romsca sat up, rubbing her head for a moment, before she relaxed and let her paw fall away.

Durral wiped wetness from his eyes, making a face. “Please try to look where you’re going.”

“I would if’n I could.” Xzaris snapped a little, and the abbot fell silent.

Val splashed Romsca, grinning. “Gotcha!”

The ferret sighed. “Yay, now I’m even wetter. Come’on Val.”

“What is with ya grumpy grumps taday, huh?” Val scowled. “Hmph, no fun ta be had with ya lot I see.”

“W ... well ... we ... we’re kind of ... a .. afraid a the ghosts, you kn .. know.” Shilo shivered, gripping Summer’s reins tightly.

Sayna, half asleep behind him, muttered, “How many .. times do I have to say .. I’m not a ghost?”

“N .. not ya ..” Shilo answered shakily. “Th .. the things out here.”

Arashi had fallen silent, but now she spoke. “What is that?”

They all turned to look at where she was pointing, and Val wrinkled her muzzle. “Is it some bridge thingy?”

Romsca stood up with a splashing. “It looks like it .... but why’d there be a bridge out here?”

“Th .. the ghosts must have .. b .. built it.” Shilo reasoned worriedly.

Xzaris stood, holding his left elbow. “We’ll never know if’n we don’t go an’ look at it.”

Barranca climbed up the bank, nodding sharply. “Come on.”

A few minutes later, they stood before the bridge, and Durral scratched an ear. “You know, it looks sort of like what was built in your city.”

“It’s Sampetrian architecture, yes.” Barranca said it carefully. “Ancient, but ours.”

“What’s it doing out here?” Arashi asked in total confusion.

Romsca reached into her satchel, shifting the case of pearls aside and pulling out the old book she’d found in Holt Lutra. “I think this has the answer ta that.”

Barranca looked up from stroking the crumbling statue of a dragon with folded wings, standing sentinel on the stone railing. “What’s that?”

“A book I found in Mossflower.” Romsca stepped onto the bridge, walking carefully. “If it’s right ... maybe ..”

“Maybe what?”

Val followed her onto the old structure, and Barranca interrupted. “Is it stable?”

Romsca nodded. “It seems so. Don’t everybeast git on at once though, just ta be safe.”

She stepped onto the crumbling, mostly overgrown stone road, shaded by not only bamboo, but trees as well. The ferret walked forward slowly, looking around with narrowed eyes, and even Val slowed her pace. “Hey .... wait a minute ... this is ... ehh .. was a paved road, weren’t it?”

Shilo guided Summer across the bridge, asking, “B ... but who made it?”

“I think our ancestors did.” Romsca shoved through some undergrowth, stopping in the somewhat cleared area behind it.

Val joined her, and stared. “Whoa. Just ... but ... it’s ...”

“I know, it ain’t possible.” Romsca clenched her paw around the book. “But I kinda suspected it.”

They were standing in the ancient ruins of a town, half overgrown by forest and bamboo. Only the stone walls and a few crumbling boards of roofs remained. Barranca was silent for a few moments, before he gave Romsca a look. “You suspected this? How?”

“Come on Uncle. Most of all that ‘bout how this island came outa the sea an’ how we’ve always been pirates an’ stuff is bilge water. We were once a trading nation, and in order to trade, you have ta manufacture things.”

Val frowned. “But we don’t make stuff .. ya know .. sides ships an’ weapons an’ cities an’ ... oh ya get me point, we don’t make stuff ta trade, we just steal whatever we want.”

Romsca grumbled. “Yea, I know. But it wasn’t always like that!”

“It wasn’t? How do ye know?” Arashi and Xzaris rejoined the group, along with Durral.

“Because this book says otherwise. I know ... woodlanders wrote it. But that’s what makes me believe it even more ... maybe our ancestors woulda wrote somethin’ like this just ta make us look better, but woodlanders don’t got any reason ta make their enemies look good.” Romsca scowled. “An’ besides ... we’re the ones with the record a lyin’, not them.”

Sayna lifted her head, shaking herself out of a doze. “Where are we?”

“Somewhere that’s not supposed to exist.” Barranca snorted.

Xzaris crossed his arms. “Am I right ta assume it’s evenin’? Shouldn’t we find some place ta hide?”

Durral had been getting his breath back, and now he raised a paw. “I’m ... with him. I don’t want to meet up with whatever’s out here.”

Val sighed. “We shoulda found him by now ... Lutran! Hey Lutran, it’s me ... ya know, Val ... I saved ya bout eight seasons ago or somethin’ like that. I could really use yer help right now ... yea, we all could ... come out, wherever ya is!”

“Val.” Romsca groaned. “It was a nice idea ... that is ... sorta a nice idea. Not really. But nice a ya ta think a it I guess. But this ain’t a liddle island ... It’s bigger’n Terramort, I don’t think he’s gonna hear ya. If he weren’t eaten long ago.”

“Oh, he weren’t eaten.” Val said quickly. “Wull, I don’t think. Cause see, when I helped him ‘scape ta the wilds, bout a season after that, ratguards started getting’ shot with those black shafted green-fletched arrows, an’ that jist yells Lutran.”

Everybeast gaped at her, and Barranca’s spine fur lifted. “Val ....”

“Val, how could ya!” Romsca gasped. “Ya knew all along an’ ya never told! Ya let that killer go free? An’ now ya think he’s gonna help us? Val!”

“If Ublaz had ever found out, he’d a torn ya limb from limb, impaled ya on a spit an’ roasted ya!” Xzaris yelped. “Did ya ever think a that??”

“Lots!” Val scowled. “Why’d ya think I’m so insanely happy all the time? It’s stress reliever, whut else? Ok, part of it’s jist natural personality. Mostly though it’s cause I don’t wanna think ‘bout consequences! Sure I let him go! But I had no clue he was gonna do that!”

Romsca glowered at the ground, muttering under her breath. “I mighta.”

Barranca buried his face in his paws with a groan, and a little whimper made them all look at Shilo. “I ... I hate this place .. s .. so much!”

Durral shook his head. “My son, you are not alone in that.”

The rat flattened his ears. “Y .. you can’t ... l .. let him kill me ... I .. I’m a r .. ratguard ... and the .. the ghost l .. loves to kill us ... p .. please, I don’t want to .. die like that .... I’d almost rather f .. face the General!”

Summer cocked his head to look at the little beast who’s paws were shaking on the reigns, who was even starting to cry. Durral didn’t move for a second, before he grabbed the horse’s mane, grabbing the cantle of the saddle and clumsily swinging up into it behind the ratguard. “You will not die my son, I promise on my honor as an abbot, you will not be harmed. I don’t believe anybeast ... well, at least not any woodlander, could love killing. Maybe they feel forced to do so, but how could they love it? No, I will vouch for you, and I will protect you.”

Sayna shook her head. “That is wishful thinking Durral ... we don’t know anything about this Lutran.”

“He is an otter ...”

“He is a mortal.” Sayna’s eyes were stormy. “Any mortal can be consumed by hatred.”

Durral tried to fold his paws into his sleeves, only to find the shirt he had on wasn’t suited for the purpose and resorted to crossing his arms. “I don’t believe this beast is.”

Barranca looked up, placing his paws together, an expression of contained anger on his face. “Let’s just get to a defensible place ... where is Arashi?”

The ferretwife was nowhere to be seen. Barranca laid a paw on his saber, calling, “Arashi?”

The stoat’s voice became urgent the next second, without a spontaneous answer. “Arashi!”

She dropped from some crumbling ruins, sighing, “I’m right here.”

“We need to stick together.” Barranca snapped.

Arashi rolled her eyes. “I was scouting ahead, and I found a place that might be a good hideout. Not the best in the world, but likely the best we’ll find afore sunset.” Romsca spoke before Barranca could. “Where is it?”

Arashi smiled a tiny bit. “Follow me. Ye should be able to bring the horse in.”

She led them through brush and fallen rubble, which Romsca helped Xzaris through. Summer stepped gingerly, and as it turned out, his three riders had to dismount and lead him. Romsca gave Sayna a look, asking, “Are ya alright?”

The old warrior straightened her shoulders as best as she could, nodding. “My strength is returning ... it is frustrating, I’ve never recovered from anything this slowly. But I could fight again.”

“I’ll see ya don’t have ta.” Romsca pulled some vegetation out of their path, letting Sayna walk through. “I’m back to normal again.”

“You’re not though.” Sayna countered quickly. “Put any physical strain on your body, and you will wear yourself down ten times as quickly as you should. You still need a good few days of rest.”

Xzaris stumbled at that moment, and Romsca didn’t answer as she focused on steadying him. “I think we’re here.”

The three shouldered their way into the ruins of what must have once been a rather elegant hall, now slowly crumbling in on itself. The rest of the group was already inside, even Summer, who was nibbling on some bamboo shoots working their way through the cracked floorstones.

It was cool and dim, with light pooling in through the many gaping holes in the vaulted ceiling, creating a patchwork of gold and dark gray. Pillars not unlike the ones lining the halls of the great palace or the temple held up what was left of the roof, and statues lurked in shadows, their eroded faces watching over nothing.

Val was walking backwards, looking up, when her foot came down on something with a cracking snap. She cast a glance down at it and yelped, jumping back.

Romsca saw what it was and allowed herself a shiver. It had been the skull of something, though it had been half crushed by the vixen’s weight. What looked like part of a spine and a few ribs were scattered around it, and as she gazed around, Romsca noticed more pale bones lying about the old hall, mostly near the outer walls.

Xzaris muttered low enough only she could hear, asking, “What’s goin’ on?”

“Skeletons.” Romsca answered. “Looks like we ain’t the first travelers ta come here.”

“Great.” He sighed in reply.

Val coughed. “Well .... ya know, it could be way worse’n this. Let’s at least try an’ look on the bright side.”

Summer jerked his head up at that moment, flicking his ears and showing the whites of his eyes. Barranca grabbed the horse’s reins as he half reared. “I’m about done with positive thinking ... this horse is a calm animal, something is spooking him .. a lot.”

Romsca ran her paw down the smooth wooden handle of her axe as Val gulped. “I really wish we could find Lutran ‘bout now!”

There was the sound of slight scraping, then of something dropping from above, and a smashing rattle. The travelers wheeled around to see the dark beast stand up, tall and well-built, black hair shrouding deep green eyes.

He stood in the shattered remains of the skeleton Val had earlier disturbed, holding a gleaming double-bladed harpoon, no true emotion on his face or in his words. “Wish granted.”

The otter took a step forward, sneering, “Though why you would want to see me is a mystery. Val, what is this?”

He had an odd accent to his voice and a demeanor of cold arrogance, his face held in a stasis of mocking indifference.

Val stood as tall as she could, grinning a little sheepishly. “Lutran! Hi ... I’ve been lookin’ everywhere fer ya. I kinda need yer help, an’ ya did say if’n I ever needed help, ya’d return the favor I gave ya.”

“I don’t recall saying that.” The otter’s lip was twisted into half a snarl and half a smirk. “I said I would not kill you. And I haven’t, I’ve just killed ratguards. However now you’re on my territory, with a bunch of filthy pirates ... I don’t see that I have to give you anything.”

Val’s smile faded, replaced by a frown. “Hey, I risked my life fer ya an’ dragged food I coulda eaten inta that nasty ol’ boathouse fer months. Not ta mention I lied ta me friends, got beaten by me employer fer bein’ late fer work, an’ put up with yer bad attitude. An’ trust me, ol’ Kia has sharp claws an’ a bad temper. Also, bein’ called ‘scum’ fer three full weeks ain’t me idea a good times. So the way I look at it, ya owes me.”

“Perhaps you.” Lutran conceded. “But the rest I’ll dispose of. And I have to say, some of these faces look a little too familiar. Romca, is it?”

“It’s Romsca.” Her voice was hard.

“Yea, I remember you.” Lutran showed his short fangs. “As I recall, you have a debt to pay. And so does he.”

The otter pointed his harpoon at Barranca. “Even if I were to let the rest of you live, he will die here.”

Arashi stepped in front of the stoat. “And what has he ever done to ye?”

Barranca grabbed her shoulder. “Arashi, no!”

“What has he done to me? He killed my sister!”

“He did not kill yer sister!” Romsca dove in front of her mother and uncle. “I’ve already told ya, I spared her!”

Lutran sneered in her face. “Filth, until my sister stands in front of me, and testifies of her own free will that you spared her, you’re nothing but a liar in my eyes, like all your kind!”

“My son, that is an overreaction ... I understand they are vermin, but they have some good in them.” Durral stepped forward, looking very abbot-like in pose ... something that was diminished by his clothes.

“And what are you? Some sort of half-blood rouse?” Lutran was not impressed.

Durral looked indignant. “Now see here, there’s no need to be insulting everybeast, the least you could do is be respectful of others. I am a mouse, no half-blood about me, and I am the abbot of Redwall.”

If Durral thought he was going to accomplish something, he was sadly mistaken. Lutran snorted. “Oh, Redwall. Yes, I’ve heard about you ... the mice in bathrobes that defeat their enemies with porridge and broomsticks. What are you going to do, terrorize me with your non-existent curtain rod? You’re far from home your Peacefulness. Things don’t work like that on Sampetra.”

“Excuse me young sir, insulting my way of life is uncalled for. We’re both woodlanders!”

The otter pointed at the vermin, asking, “Are you with them?”

“Well ...” Durral looked at Romsca, then Shilo. “Yes, I believe I am.”

Lutran snarled. “In that case old one, you’re just as much my enemy as they are.”

Durral took a step backward, blue-brown eyes widening. Sayna jumped in front of the Abbot and Romsca, holding up a paw. “Enough!”

It was Lutran who stepped back this time, almost like he’d been shoved. The mouse’s eyes were glinting oddly, almost pinkish as she slowly dropped her paw. “I know your sister, Grath. And she is nothing like you! Do you think Ignasa would approve of you killing not only vermin who seek no fight with you, but a peaceful mouse who has done you no harm?”

The otter didn’t answer for a few moments, before growling, “Ignasa? Ignasa didn’t save my family, and he’s not my lord. I’ve never seen any proof that he exists. So go back to the kitchen superstitious old mousewife, and leave fighting to the warriors.”

Sayna met his gaze, a snarl twisting her face. “Insult me all you want. But I can assure you this. If you want to touch one hair of their heads, it’ll have to be over my dead body.”

Lutran stared at her for a moment, before rolling his eyes. “Look, mousewife. If you want to protect your husband, I get it. Fine. He may be a filthy vermin lover, but I’ll let him be. It’s the sea scum I want. Just get out of my way.”

“My what?” Sayna’s eyes returned to their normal black for a moment out of shock, before she clenched her paws, closing her eyes and opening them to show they were once again dusky rose. “You should not speak so freely of what you do not understand, I would never dream of marrying him. I am nothing but a defender, and as these beasts are in my protection, I will die before they do!”

Romsca interrupted. “But ..”

Sayna turned an ever reddening gaze upon the ferret, growling, “Stay out of this! Get back, get away from me, this is between woodlanders!”

Lutran snorted. “You really want to do this mousewife? Do you really think that you, a weak old female, can defeat me?”

“Yes.” Sayna drew her sword as her eyes turned blood red and her voice increased in viciousness until it was something akin to a roar. “Have you ever heard of Bloodwrath!?”

She leapt forward, glowing sword flashing, and Lutran held his harpoon out coolly. His eyes widened the next instant as Sayna lowered her blade in full swing, slashing the top of his weapon clean off.

Lutran leapt back, spinning his harpoon around as the mouse attacked again, red eyes gleaming insanely. The others had backed away, Romsca standing with a look of indecision, paw on her axe shaft as she watched in wonder.

Barranca and Arashi stared in fearful amazement, the stoat breathing, “Like the great mouse-lords of Mossflowerian legends!”

Arashi nodded, whispering, “She must be one of the last of her kind! I thought the stories said they died out hundreds of seasons past!”

Lutran’s arrogance was quickly being replaced by pure fear as Sayna advanced relentlessly, snarling, “You will not kill my successor!”

The mouse twisted around, slashing the second blade from the otter’s weapon and knocking him backward. He fumblingly grabbed a fist-sized piece of rubble and tensed to throw it, but Sayna finished the rotation, dropping to one knee and gripping the hilt of her sword, teeth clenched.

“I do not wish to harm you.” Her voice was hard, but strained. “Surrender. Do not make this end in death.”

Lutran leapt to his feet, backing away as Sayna rose. “Wha ... what are you?”

She looked up, a dark smile on her face. “I’m a warrior of Ignasa. I should really ask, what are you?”

Arashi suddenly spoke. “Sir, I know that we, as pirates have done great wrong. But do ye really think ye can kill all of us? Ye are badly outnumbered.”

“Oh no, that’s where you are terribly wrong.” Lutran drew himself to his full height, yelling, “Shui, now!”

There was a metallic swishing and a flash as a dark turquois creature dropped from above, not unlike a snake with short but flexible legs. It opened a wide mouth lined with many razor-sharp teeth, glinting silver blade-like scales on its back raising as it screeched.

Swishing and scraping surrounded the travelers as at least fifteen lizards bounded in through holes in the walls, crumbling windows, and the gaping doorway. They were a myriad of colors, some various shades of blue and silver, like the strange beast standing by Lutran, others were obviously Monitors, though slightly leaner and more rugged then those in the city.

Arashi gasped, grabbing Barranca’s arm. “Monitors!”

Romsca drew her axe, grabbing Sayna’s shoulder and dragging her back to where Xzaris was standing tensely, turning his head this way and that quickly. Summer reared, ripping the reins from Barranca’s paw and trying to bolt, only to be stopped by three of the lizards, which drove the horse back towards his masters.

Val growled, holding her blade ready, Shilo whimpered, drawing his trident, and even Durral pulled out his dagger.

Lutran grinned nastily. “See? It’s you who are outnumbered. Shui, what do you think?”

The blue dragon looked up at him with sparkling amber eyes. “Thiz iz the weirdezt lunch we’ve come acrozz. Alzo, I don’t like hanging upzide down on a zeiling for thirty minutez. And the old mouze lady totally got you good!”

Shui snickered, a wide grin covering her face. “That’z the firzt time I’ve zeen a furbeazt beat you!”

“Oh lay off it.” Lutran grumbled.

Romsca held Sayna tightly, as the mouse was leaning against her, almost incoherent. “Sayna! Sayna?”

The old warrior grabbed Romsca’s arm, groaning, “I ... will be ... alright ...”

“What’s wrong? Can I do somethin’?”

“No ... no .. just .. need rest ... I used too much ...” She slumped against the ferret, her sword clattering to the ground.

Romsca shoved her axe into Xzaris’s paws and grabbed the mouse’s weapon. The ancient blade, while dulling from the lack of its owner’s paw, flared with light as it connected with hers. The hilt tingled against her fur and skin, sending shivers of pure awe down her spine.

The travelers were backed up against each other, fear in their eyes due to the lizards, and Val pointed an accusing paw at Lutran. “Lutran, this ain’t right a ya! I wanted ta believe we was friends, but maybe ya is just a big liar!”

Lutran opened his mouth to retort, but Shui interrupted. “Lutran, zhe’z got a point you know. If zhe really zaved you, you owe her a fair hearing from dad."

“Hrm ... I suppose.” Lutran conceded, giving Romsca and Barranca a death glare.

One of the Monitors spoke, with shocking intelligence. “Come on Lutran, it’z not that bad. We can have a znack later.”

A larger, darker colored Monitor shoved him. “Heeey ... I’m hungry!”

“You’re alwayz hungry.” The first one actually laughed, true humor in his yellow eyes, which were far from dull.

The larger lizard sighed. “But the blind one lookz tazty!”

Romsca stepped in front of Xzaris, teeth bared aggressively. “If ya touch him, I’ll skewer ya with this!”

She jabbed the glowing sword in his direction, and two of the blue lizards leapt in front of him, snarling. “Touch the prinze and faze the full wrath of Dragonlord Izan!”

“Relax, like zhe can hurt me.” The Monitor pushed the two other lizards aside.

Lutran growled. “Enough. Disarm them.”

“Disarm us? ‘Round these mindless killers?” Romsca adopted a fighting stance. “Not likely! They’ll rip us apart!”

“Hey, whoa, hold on, that’z not nize.” Shui flicked her serpentine tongue. “Rockz izn’t like the feralz.”

The large green lizard nodded. “Yea, who’re you calling brainlezz, zmartlezz?”

His slighter companion rolled his eyes. “That did not come out right Rockz. Iz zmartlezz even a word?”

Rocks grinned. “You know, I totally have no idea ... Zhui, iz zmartlezz a word?”

Romsca, Barranca, and Arashi exchanged a dumbfounded look, and the smaller, lighter green Monitor bowed his head in greeting. “I’m zorry for my ziblingz, they don’t alwayz act az zmart az they are ... I am Drip, zon of Dragonlord Izan. We aren’t Monitorz, that’z juzt what your Emperor callz the feralz ... we’re really called Neishi ... it meanz creature of land.”

Lutran growled, “Alright, cultural lesson over. Drop your weapons or we will take them by force.”

Durral slowly let his knife clatter to the ground, and Shilo dropped his trident beside it.

Xzaris sighed, tossing his dagger in the general direction of the pile, but missing it by several feet. A few seconds later, he threw Romsca’s axe in with the other weapons.

Arashi snarled, drawing katana and rapier at the same time and flinging them away. Romsca closed her eyes for a moment, before tossing Sayna’s sword away, then falling to removing her many knives from their various hiding places.

Barranca growled deep in his throat, dropping his saber reluctantly.

Val sighed, glaring at Lutran, before flinging her katana at him with bad grace. “Ya might as well jist take it, ya rotten grump. How ‘bout I call ya scum ... yea, river scum, ya loser.”

Shui and Rocks grinned, wincing jokingly. “Oooooh river zcum.”

Rocks snickered. “Zhui, help me remember that one.”

“Zure will, I like the little fox girl.” Shui laughed.

“Ahge, just collect their weapons and move out.” Lutran scowled, throwing Val’s katana at Rocks. “Put that in your big mouth to keep it busy.”

The lizard jumped up and caught the blade between his teeth, landing with a ground-jarring thump that brought a few bits of the ceiling smashing down.

Lutran scowled. “Xing, Yun! Scout ahead. If you see any Winddancers, tell them to run on ahead and inform Lord Isan immediately.”

Two of the blue dragons bounded away with surprising speed, their whip-like tails lashing through the air with a sound like a sword blade.

Shui scurried to Val’s side, ignoring the vixen’s flinching. “I want to guard the zmarty one!”

“Fine.” Lutran grumbled, pointing at Barranca, Romsca, and Xzaris. “But two guards for each of the captains.”

“How do you know of our status?” Barranca’s voice was stiff.

Lutran’s eyebrows arched down, making the smile spreading across his face look demonic. “We know far more of you than you know of us. Welcome to our world ... for as long as you stay.”



Chapter 26 Dragonland

“And you’re sure this’ll work?” Grath laid her paw on the galley table.

Welko shrugged. “I’m not sure about any a this.”

Plogg nodded. “Aye, we’re heading straight into enemy territory. Dad would say there’s too many variables to rely on just one plan.”

“You do have more than one plan though, right?” Cracklyn asked quickly.

“A course!” Plogg snorted. “What do you take us for? There are nine of us ... each with our unique abilities.”

Welko broke in. “Grath, Hood, and I are archers. We’re better at distance fighting, but Martin, Clecky, Plogg, and Inbar are more into paw-to-paw combat ...”

Cracklyn interrupted. “Heeey .. what about me and Tansy?”

Plogg nodded. “You’re not very good with any kind of weapon, but you’re fast and agile. Tansy ... er ... well, hopefully we won’t actually have to fight. Tansy is clever and careful ...”

“And that amounts to something.” Welko added quickly.

“That’s right laddie buck, and she feeds us, wot?” Clecky crossed his arms.

Plogg sighed. “Erm ... yes. Very good, don’t get me wrong ... how well can you act?”

This was directed to Tansy, who frowned. “Act? Well ...”

“Act? Come on you guys, she’s a great actor!” Cracklyn grinned, wrapping an arm around the hedgehog’s neck for a moment, before pulling it swiftly back. “Yeouch! Anyways, as I was saying, she’s always been good at that. Nobeast can keep a straight face like Tansy. Nobeast.”

The hedgehog scuffed a paw, flushing a little. “Well, I guess I’m sort of good at it. Just .. not really in front of audiences.”

Cracklyn frowned. “Yea ... true. But we could practice.”

Plogg nodded. “You do that. We’ve got about two hours before we pull into that bay. Everybeast practice your vermin slang.”

Hood spoke for the first time. “Don’t forget what that captain that passed us said. He asked me what my house was, and he looked at our flag .. your flag, Grath, and guessed it was the ‘House of the Sea-horse. I have the feeling we might seem out of place without houses.”

“You really think so chap? Think it’s a bit like second names in Icetor?” Clecky asked.

“Yes, pretty much.” Hood nodded. “Plogg, Welko, being travelers, I’m sure you’ve seen many diverse cultures ... do you really think, even in disguise, that we can blend into this one?”

“Well ...” Welko sighed. “That’s kind of up to us. We’ll just have to be witty. And we won’t be there long ... just long enough to rescue the Abbot and Sayna and resupply.”

“Hey, one second!” Inbar protested. “I thought we were coming here to stop the Emperor. I left home to protect it ... I can’t go back unless I actually do something.”

Grath crossed her arms. “He’s right, we’ve got to stop the pirates reign of terror over the seas. We can’t just take what was stolen from us .. they’ll keep stealing from others. Besides, as the last survivor of Holt Lutra ...”

She sighed. “By otter law, I am honor-bound to bring vengeance.”

“Geeze, you really know how to make things more complex.” Plogg complained.

Martin spoke up. “How about we work on rescuing our friends first ... and then work on this revenge thing. If we can get that far, we’ll figure it out.”

“Yea, I guess that’s fair.” Grath agreed.

Inbar frowned, consenting at last. “So long as we do something. I’ll never be able to face my father unless I can tell him the threat of losing Holt Rudderwake is gone.”

“Yea ....” Welko didn’t sound so sure. “We’ll see. Now, let’s put on our disguises and get ready. Except Hood, he’s fine the way he is.”

><><

Ublaz sat at his fine dining table, rubbing his stained claws on his napkin almost absently as several servants hurried to bring their emperor’s dinner.

The door at the end of the hall opened a few moments later, allowing Sagitar and two other guards to walk in. They all bowed quickly, before the general ordered, “Stand guard outside, do not disturb us.”

The two hurried out, and Sagitar turned to Ublaz. “I am sorry for my lateness sire.”

Ublaz waved a paw at her with an air of unconcern. “No matter, do sit down General.”

She did so, and he set his napkin down. “So, how are my pets doing?”

“Very well sire.” Sagitar folded her paws. “You should have seven hundred more ready for training by the time summer ends.”

“Perfect. That makes over a thousand. In a few seasons, all will come to pass.” The pine marten smiled. “General, when was the last time Southsward attacked us?”

She shrugged. “They attack our ships on sight, but it has been many seasons since they set foot on this island. The last recorded time they tried; they were fools who tried to sneak up on us from behind. Needless to say, your pets ... then feral ... tore them apart. We did not lift a paw, there was no need.”

“And there will be no need again. We will take war to them, once the great city falls, the provinces will follow quickly. Four seasons hence, at this very time, I will sit on the throne of Redwall, the great blood fortress. They say no warlord can defeat them, but I am an Emperor, and mice with sticks do not concern me or my lizards. Salamandastron will fall to me next. Terramort won’t stand a chance. The highlanders, while formidable foes, are scattered .. they won’t challenge me for long.” Ublaz looked content.

Sagitar raised an eyebrow. “What of the kingdom of Icetor?”

“Mmm .. yes, they do pose a problem, don’t they? With the altitude, my lizards won’t do any good against them. But while they are a fierce and proud nation, let’s not forget what they are.” Ublaz let a smile sweep across his face. “They are vermin, on the whole. They may have taught their children to live in peace with woodlanders, but they cannot escape what they were born as. In every one of us there is the thirst for blood. They aren’t an exception. They may fight, but in time, they will see the truth.”

“It is a good point. Aside from that, if they are alone with no help, they won’t last forever.” Sagitar nodded.

Ublaz took a sip of wine. “So it begins. I have spent my whole life preparing for this day. How is our ghost?”

Sagitar shook her head. “All has been quiet, aside from Barranca’s desertion ... I can’t help but feel trouble is coming despite it.”

“Yes ... Barranca. Such a talented captain, so determined to protect his family. A shame that family was destined to be lost to history, but such is fate ... such is justice.”

“Well, at any rate, he is as dead as the rest of the Dragons.” Sagitar sneered. “No ship, no safety, nowhere to hide. He’s done for.”

“Yes, I expect he is. But what is it that will kill him? That is the question general. And it is the question we must answer before we set about conquering anything else ... we must conquer our own island. When these new lizards are ready ... whatever our little ghost is will bother us no more. Ghosts belong in Hellgates, after all.” Ublaz smiled. “Though there have been setbacks, I will regain my pearls and continue in my course. Finally, everything is going according to plan.”

Just as the words left his mouth, there was a commotion from outside, raised voices and the growls of Monitors. Sagitar growled herself. “I told them not to disturb us ... I’m very sorry sire. I’ll deal with this.”

The rat stood, pushing her chair back and stalking for the door. She shoved it open, snarling, “What is this? Which of you is responsible?”

One of the rats winced. “I am general ... I was told to report if any new ships docked. I supervise the patrols.”

“Yes, and?” Sagitar sounded testy.

“Well General, a new ship has docked.” The unfortunate beast stood as still as he was able. Ublaz had walked over, and he asked, “Does it fly the dragon sail and a captain’s flag?”

“Yes ... but ..”

“Then why bother us? Identify the captain and appoint a time for them to bring the allotted spoils to their emperor.”

“But this ship is unlike any I’ve seen frequent our bay ... it’s a Sampetrain style, but ... it’s different. Older. I really think you should take a look General. Besides, the flag they fly is not registered, I checked.” The rat finally got a word in.

Ublaz smiled. “Really. What is the motif?”

“A sea-horse sire.”

The emperor’s smile seemed to drip off his face, though his voice remained steady. “A what?”

“A white horse ... with a green fishtail instead of back legs.” He tried to better explain himself.

Sagitar sneered. “There is no such flag, or any such house.”

Ublaz’s lips stayed in a grim line. “Exactly. General, come. I want to see this ship.”

The guard looked immensely relived, and motioned that they follow him. “You can see it from the palace steps sire, it is a coastal raider and is heading for one of the docks.”

Ublaz said nothing, just strode through the halls in tense silence, Sagitar following with subtle confusion. It took a few minutes to reach the front steps, but the emperor was in a hurry. He stopped outside the main doors of the palace, staring down at the docks in the faded light.

His paws clenched, and Sagitar stopped by his side, squinting at the new ship. “Wait .. that ...”

“It can’t be.” Ublaz’s voice actually bordered on a growl.

Sagitar looked up at him. “That was Kanja’s ship, wasn’t it? But it was sunk over forty seasons ago.”

Ublaz’s pale eyes were alive with more fire than they had shown for many seasons. “The prow of that ship is unmistakable. But only ghosts would sail it, for that crew is some forty seasons dead.”

“It should be at the bottom of the sea.” Sagitar crossed her arms. “But it is unmistakably Kanja’s ... only he had the skeleton of one of the ancient dragons on his prow.”

“I know this General.” Ublaz’s voice was tight.

Sagitar frowned. “But ... how could you know of Kanja and his ship when you were not born here?”

Ublaz actually scowled, voice decisive. “I know many things.”

“Yes sire, of course.” Sagitar bowed her head. “But to the matter at paw, what is to be done?”

“Send your beasts to search the ship and bring all its sailors to me. I will get to the bottom of this mystery.” Ublaz stared stone-faced at the bay, the slight night breeze rustling his hair.

Sagitar nodded, glaring at the rat who’d informed them. “Do as your Emperor commands.”

><><

“Well I think it looks spiffin’, wot? Jolly nice coat, fit for a captain.” Clecky straitened the russet sea-coat about his shoulders , striking a somewhat noble pose.

“It probably was the captain’s.” Inbar stated. “They wear coats like that often.”

Clecky nodded, grinning at Hood. “Well then it suits me, eh? Say, you need one of these mate.”

“Hrm.” The fox grunted. “It doesn’t have a hood.”

“Aye, fair point, where would Hood be without his hood, am I right?” Clecky nudged Inbar. The otter shrugged. “I guess.”

Cracklyn swung down from the rafters of the captain’s cabin, silk sashes around her waist, forehead, and arms fluttering. “I’m a pirate fox! Arge matey!”

Inbar shook his head. “You’ve got to keep that tail of yours under control. If it flips up, we’re done for.”

The squirrel smoothed the appendage in question down. “Yea, I got this. Well, I think. And speaking of things like that, what about Clecky’s ears?”

Hood and Inbar looked up, and the hare clapped his paws over his head. “I say now ... that’s ... now just what are you planning on doin’ with a chap’s ears?”

Grath walked in, wrapping silk shirt tied around her waist with a sash. “What about ears?”

“Clecky’s. We’ve got to hide them.” Inbar pointed.

Welko grinned. “Well he needs a hat. It’s that or cutting them off.”

Tansy had come in behind Grath, a leather vest and light tunic on. “I saw a hat, it’s in the trunks down in the hold.”

Grath nodded. “Ok, you go help Clecky find it. We’re getting really close, so hurry.”

The hare followed the hedgehog, giving Welko a dirty look. Tansy climbed down the ladder, and Clecky bounded on ahead. “Which of the trunks is it in?”

“In the back storage room, there’s a couple.”

The hare pulled the door open, hurrying in. Tansy came in a few moments later, to find Clecky digging through a trunk. “Hmm ... rope, hey, gold pieces ...”

“No, not that trunk.” Tansy opened a different one’s lid, pointing in. “This one.”

Clecky rummaged in the chest, pulling out a tattered russet feathered hat. He plopped it on his head, asking, “Well, how do I look?”

Tansy frowned. “I think you need to tie your ears together ... they still stick out.”

“Hrmph, I suppose I do. The things a chap’s gotta do to his ears ta sneak into this bally place. I mean, honestly.”

His companion was looking him over, and she suddenly exclaimed, “Oh ... your tail!”

“What about my tail?”

“You ... don’t really have one.” Tansy grimaced.

Clecky looked indignant. “I bally well do so, eh wot?”

“Yes ...” Tansy frowned. “But it’s just not long like vermin’s tails. It should stick out under your coat, but it doesn’t.”

“So my tail is short ...” Clecky retorted.

“And poofy.” Tansy pointed out. “Not like a weasel’s tail at all.”

“Well it’s their blinkin’ loss for having such long scutts, wot? I’ll tell ‘em mine was bally well cut off in a fight, that happens when you have one of those abnormally lengthy tails.”

Tansy giggled despite herself, and Clecky huffed.

The hedgehog laughed. “I’m sorry Clecky, I just can’t help it .. you’re so funny!”

The hare froze, lifting the curling locks hiding his ears, and snapped, “Shhh .. hush!”

“Ok .. Ok, I won’t tease you anymore ...” Clecky clapped a paw over her mouth, cutting off her words.

“I said hush! Listen!” The hare was looking up at the ceiling.

There was a flurry of voices, then a jarring thump, followed by the thudding of boots. Clecky grabbed Tansy’s paw, letting go the next second. “Whatever’s going on, it’s not good. We need to hide ... now.”

“But what about the others ...”

“I said now Tansy! Any ideas? And hurry!”

The two froze as a voice broke out from above. “Search the ship, don’t let anybeast escape!”

Tansy’s eyes widened, before she grabbed Clecky by the arm. “Come with me!”

><><

“Come on, move, the lot of ya!”

Hood glared at the rat from under the cloth shrouding his eyes. “This isn’t any way to treat a fellow pirate.”

The guard tying his paws behind his back snorted, yanking the ropes tight. The first rat sneered at him. “A fellow pirate ya say? How stupid do ya take us fer? Oh right ... we’re just vermin. We’re Sampetrain’s ya overgrown rabbit ... what is that, a fake tail?”

Hood pinned his ears, growling wordlessly. Grath struggled against the rats binding her, protesting, “No! We’re pirates! How else would we have a pirate ship?”

“I donno, ya stole it I guess.” The lead rat was unconcerned. “An’ I already told ya I ain’t fallin’ fer it.”

“But we have pirate clothes!” Cracklyn yelled, and Welko kicked her.

“You’re making it worse.”

The rat shrugged. “Not my problem ... you’ll have ta take it up with Emperor Ublaz. Guards, disarm them! And search the tall one’s cloak, who knows what sort of weapons he’s hiding under it.”

Hood growled low in his throat, lashing out with bound paws and smashing them into the unfortunate guard trying to do what he was told. The rat in charge grabbed Plogg, who was nearest, holding the kicking, furious shrew by the scruff of his neck. “Ya better cooperate, or we can do this the hard way.”

The fox pinned his ears flat against his head, growling, “Leave him be ... I won’t fight you.”

The rat nodded, motioning to two of his guards, who grabbed Hood, shoving him to his knees and ripping his cloak back, searching the sides of it. The fox kept his head down, and the hood stayed on through the ordeal. The two rats backed off, one stating, “Nah, nothin’.”

The guard in charge dropped Plogg, who gave him a spiteful look. He looked at the four guards returning from the hold, asking, “Anybeast else?”

“No sir, an’ we searched thoroughly.”

“Right. Let’s get these prisoners to the general. Move, the lot a ya.”

They were herded onto the dock, where several horses and five Monitors were waiting. Welko backed up against Cracklyn, hissing, “Those things!”

Grath scooted towards Inbar, swallowing hard and breathing faster than usual. The other otter looked just as nervous, and Hood kept his ears pinned. As they walked, Cracklyn looked at Welko, muttering ever so softly, “They didn’t get Clecky and Tansy!”

The shrew nodded, muttering, “Keep your mouth shut. Maybe they gave em the slip and will find a way to help us.”

><><

Romsca held onto Xzaris’s paw, a little more tightly then she would have liked to admit .. but those lizards! And now there were more of them ... ones that could think, and ones that looked entirely different than the Monitors in the city.

These were the blue lizards, four of which were guarding the two of them. Romsca couldn’t help but stare at them ... all of them. They varied in shades of blue, some bright like beautifully colored birds, others dull and shimmering with a silver sheen, like eels or fish.

One of them even had strange projections coming from its shoulders, almost like undersized, mutated wings. Romsca felt a shiver run down her spine ... could any of these lizards fly? The one Lutran had referred to as Shui seemed excited to converse with Val, who was considerably less optimistic.

“Zo, why did you leave the zity? Mozt vermin don’t even try ... cauze of how Lutran zhootz thoze guardz on the wallz.”

Val grimaced nervously. “Uh ... yea.”

Shui grinned. “We really zcared you didn’t we?”

“Uh .... Yea. Lots.”

“Well .... Yea.” Shui admitted. “I mean, I’d probably be zcared too if zomebeazt waz eating my kind and leaving the bonez all over the plaze.”

Val made a face, side-stepping a little. Shui frowned. “I guezz that meanz you’re zcared of me?”

“Uhh .. yea. Very much so.” For once, Val wasn’t in the mood for a conversation.

“Aww ...” Shui’s fin-like ears drooped. “Weeeell ... I guezz I can’t blame you. Ztill though, did you really zave Lutran? Cauze he didn’t tell uz that.”

Val scowled. “Oh, he didn’t eh? Well I’m starting to think that Lutran’s a real louse.”

“Nooo ... not really, he can be lotz of fun zometimez.” Shui stood up for the otter. “But zomething about you haz made him really upzet.”

Romsca glanced at Xzaris, even if he couldn’t return the look. “I wonder why ...”

Her voice was laced with dark sarcasm. The forest they were in now was mainly filled with trees instead of bamboo, and they were going upwards, ever upwards. Xzaris spoke softly, asking, “Is it jist me, or is we goin’ up one’a the mountains?”

“You are.”

Romsca looked at the lizard with the mutant wings, and it flicked its tongue at her, grinning widely. This was a terrifying sight in and of itself, as its smile curled the length of its face, ending behind its eyes.

The ferret shivered the slightest bit, before nodding. Lutran was walking ahead of them in stony silent, a scowl fixed on his face, and Romsca returned the look behind his back. She couldn’t help it.

Maybe she deserved his wrath, but Val didn’t. And if he didn’t have the decency to treat the beast who’d saved his life with the proper regard, then he was just as bad as her, so he could swallow his ego.

She helped Xzaris skirt some boulders, ones with strange etchings on them, half worn away by time. Lutran stopped on the edge of a deep valley, fringed with trees, grown up with bamboo in places, with a stream running through it. The end twisted and turned out of sight in the falling dusk.

Lutran gave his prisoners a dark look, before starting down the slope, and the others followed. Val was growing the slightest bit accustomed to Shui, something she proved by asking hesitantly, “Is this yer home?”

“Thiz?” The blue dragon laughed a strange, hissing laugh, though it did sound genuinely amused. “Thiz iz juzt a zcratch on the zurvaze, we rule the lower realmz.”

“The .. lower realms?” Val looked confused.

“Yez, the heart of Zampetra, the volcanoz.” Shui seemed pleased the fox was talking to her.

“Volcanos?” Val looked even more confused.

Shui stopped for a moment, blinking her yellow eyes. “You really know nothing about thiz island, do you?”

Romsca spoke for the first time, muttering, “It ain’t like we can leave the walls ...”

Lutran flattened his ears at this point, growling, “Come on, keep moving. We want to get back before dawn.”

Shui shrugged, hissing, “Grumpy.”

She looked at Val, winking, “You’ll zee what I mean zoon enough.”

The silence was broken by what sounded like more than one set of hooves, and two horses, small and rugged, loped out of the forest. They stopped upon seeing the newcomers, and the black one trotted up to Lutran, stomping a hoof. “What are they doing here?”

The otter grumbled. “I have no choice Pearl, it’s complicated. Lord Isan will have to decide about them ... it’s not my place.”

Romsca could tell he desperately wished it was his place, by the way he said it. The horse flicked its ears back, pinning them. “Scum. No vermin has ever seen the vale of the dragons, we should kill them here!”

“Pearl, stop.” The black’s companion, a chestnut, interrupted. “It’s not like they will ever leave.”

“I guess ... but they shouldn’t even get to see it!”

The chestnut nuzzled her neck. “Lord Isan will deliver justice, he always does.”

The mare called Pearl looked away, voice stiff. “Do what you see fit, but keep them away from my foal.”

Lutran sneered. “Don’t worry.”

He gave Romsca a smirking glance. “I’m sure Isan will deal with them before dawn.”

Romsca glared daggers at him, and his back once he turned it. Xzaris shook his head, sighing, “They’re gonna kill us, aren’t they?”

“Looks that way.” Romsca showed her teeth. “That won’t come easy from me.”

><><

Grath and her friends were escorted ... and in Plogg’s case, dragged up the winding roads of an ancient pirate city. It was shrouded by the night, and while she had seen its lights, this place was much bigger than she had thought.

Her heart was sinking toward the soles of her feet, as these vermin were proving to not be easily fooled. Though she did quietly notice Tansy and Clecky had not be brought along, she said nothing ... what two beasts could do against this many however, she had no idea.

The otter didn’t resist her two guards, just racked her brain for a solution to this mess. Coming here had been a fool’s errand ... if only they’d anchored around the other side of the island! But no ... she’d had to be heroic and try to rush in and save the abbot and Sayna, and it hadn’t gotten her or anybeast else anywhere.

They were approaching a grandiose building, pillared, and perched on the side of the rising slope the entire city seemed to sit on. The guards and the lizards that escorted them hurried the group up the staircase leading up to what Grath guessed to be a palace or temple of some sort.

A tall female rat, about ten more of the uniformed guards, and seven of the reptiles were waiting for them. The rat snarled at them. “So you are the fools who dared to dock in the Emperor’s bay?”

“We’re pirates.” Inbar kept a straight face and a clear tone as he said it, and Grath admired his façade of bravado, better than anything she could have mustered.

The rat stalked over to him, and his guards forced him to his knees. She ripped the headband shading his eyes from his head, sneering, “Are you?”

She wrenched one of his arms, bound at the elbows, into plain sight, ripping his glove off to reveal a webbed paw. “Then how do you explain this, otter? As if your tail wasn’t enough evidence.”

The rat twirled her trident, before striking Inbar on the jaw with the weapon’s pole. The otter cried out slightly, and the rat gripped the longer fur on his chin, wrenching his head up. “That’s for lying to a general, you scum.”

She jerked her paw away, and Inbar slumped against his bonds, coughing a little. The rat surveyed the group, laughing mockingly. “Good try, good try. That’s the first time woodlanders dared to face the dragon. Too bad for you, but your ends will amuse me. The Emperor requests your presence.”

She turned on her heels, pointing at the guards. “Half of you, back to wall duty. The rest ... the Emperor’s guests need an escort, do they not?”

Grath kept her head down, and tried to keep her legs from shaking as she was shoved down a long hallway, lit at intervals by colored paper lanterns a little like the ones that were always hung at Redwall’s feasts. They took a few turns and walked down several passages, before stopping at a formidable set of crimson doors.

The rat general opened them slightly, walking through. She was gone a few moments before the doors swung wide, revealing a red throne room, shrouded in deep shadow aside from the dias, which was bathed in a pool of lantern light.

A pine marten stood there, dressed in the finest of silks and golds, unnatural pale golden eyes watching them. There was something in those eyes she hadn’t expected, something more than a power hungry vermin lord. It was something deeper. His expression was forced indifference, his mouth a grim line.

The general stood by his side, raising her trident and pointing in forcibly at the prisoners. “All hail Emperor Ublaz, lord of the dragons, king of the land of the setting sun!”

Whether they wanted to or not, the guards forced them to their knees. Ublaz said nothing for a moment, before speaking smoothly, but tightly. “It’s a poor day for you, woodlanders. For the record, I have a very good sense of humor. But to come here with a stolen ship, stolen clothes, and plans to harm me and my land no doubt ... it does not bode well for you.”

Nobeast spoke, and the pine marten crossed his arms. “Take every piece of Sampetrian clothing off them ... they don’t deserve to touch it. Start with that scum, what is his holt?”

He pointed at Inbar, and two guards yanked the silk shirt he was wearing back, tearing it off him. Ublaz glanced at the orange sun tattoo on the otter’s upper arm, twisting his whiskers around a claw. “Hmm ... I’ve never seen this one before. What is your holt boy?”

Inbar looked away. Ublaz sneered, making a motion with his paw and forcing the otter to meet his gaze. “Holt Rudderwake eh? How interesting. Don’t worry, I’ll smash them to bits just like we crushed Lutra.”

He nodded to the guards. “Continue.”

Cracklyn struggled as her tunic was yanked off, leaving her in her thin chemise ... Plogg and Welko suffered the same indignity.

Hood growled at the guards, protesting, “These are my clothes, not yours ..”

Ublaz nodded to the rats, smiling ever so slightly. “I like to see my enemy’s face.”

Hood’s teeth ground together as a rat grabbed his hood, yanking it from his head. Black hair spilled across a deeply scarred face, the tear running from his ripped ear, between his eyes, and down his cheek and the side of his neck.

The guards tore his robe off, leaving only his kilt. Hood’s violet gray eyes snapped with anger for a few moments, before he hung his head in shame.

Ublaz smirked. “Interesting. Most interesting. I assume you desired to hide that scar? We all have those fox. You should get used to the pain, you’ll live with it forever.”

The guards had taken almost every scrap of clothing Martin had been wearing, and Ublaz nodded. “Good. Now what about our shy friend here? I’m going to guess you’re an otter too? Only one way to find out.”

Grath was staring at him, shivers running down her spine. He had admitted to killing her family! She didn’t fight the guards as they tore her headband off, letting green-streaked hair spill everwhere.

The pine marten’s eyes darkened at this, turning almost black as her shirt was pulled off, leaving her armor and symbol of Holt Lutra all too obvious.

Ublaz didn’t move for a few seconds, before he spoke, voice dark. “Otter, you are a deadbeast that somehow lives ... against my wishes. You should know your life hangs by a thread ... a thread I will cut. But I need to know something first ... why are you alive?”

Grath stared at the floor, before daring to look up. “I ... If you can ask that .... then I can ask why too! Why ... why did you kill my family? They ... they never hurt you ... they never hurt you!”

“Oh didn’t they?” Ublaz’s voice was as dark as night itself.

He turned away, staring in the opposite direction for a few moments, before his clenched paws relaxed and he faced her again. “Daughter of Lutra. You and I have a score to settle, and you ..”

His mouth curled into a smile. “You have a debt to pay.”

“Please .. sire .. she’s innocent of any wrongdoing, I swear! You must be mistaken!” Inbar pleaded, and Martin nodded quickly.

Ublaz looked at the female rat, who growled. “You do not have any right to speak.”

The pine marten smiled drily. “I am never mistaken. You are more the fool to speak. General, throw the rest in prison, and punish this one accordingly. Don’t kill him, just make him regret his babbling.”

Inbar met Grath’s gaze, and Martin did too, as they were dragged away. She wished she could promise them this would turn out alright some way or another, but she was about certain it would be the other way around.

She couldn’t stop her friends from being taken out of the throne room, leaving her surrounded by rats and lizards, alone. Her throat tightened with fear and she fought to keep her breathing steady as Ublaz folded his paws. “Now I will have my question answered. How are you alive? Did you escape?”

Grath stared at him, feeling a strange twisting in her gut as she met his pale gaze, and suddenly, she was pulled back into the memories from that living nightmare of seasons past. She struggled against it, she did not want to remember ... not when she had strived so long to forget.

“Ughhh ...”

She clenched her paws together, closing her eyes and did her best not to think. But the pictures came back anyway, and she couldn’t stop them.

“Remembering ... it always hurts, doesn’t it?” Ublaz’s voice was a mocking sound.

Grath slumped in her restraints as it all returned, the terror, the pain ... running away, cowering in the corner of Waterlily’s cave as she was killed. Then another picture came into the otter’s mind ... of the ferretmaid. Grath had tried to forget her, she made no sense. But her eyes still haunted her nightmares, frightened, angry, agonized green eyes ... for some reason, their owner had spared her life. A reason Grath was not likely to ever know.

She slowly looked up, finding the pine marten staring at her, stance tense and eyes alive with fury. His voice did not match his obvious anger, but a tiny tremor of it was audible under the pretense of control. “Her.”

Ublaz turned on his heel, stalking to the other end of the dais. “General, if our little captain Romsca somehow still lives, she is to be killed on sight. I would say bring her to me, but she has tangled with me one time to many, and I am through with her tricks and games. I make the games, and I make the rules; she is done playing.”

Grath tried to make sense of what he had just said, but he spoke again. “And bring this one to my office ... I may have reacted poorly to the others, but this one I’ll treat appropriately.”

><><

The vermin’s journey was growing ever stranger, especially as they reached the end of the valley, the jagged side of a cliff. Lutran didn’t look up as he stomped a bare, leather-bound footpaw on the ground, then vaulted onto a nearby jag of rock.

Val looked at Shui, asking hesitantly, “What’s .. he doin’?”

The dragon grinned. “He’z opening it, what elze?”

Lutran jumped from the rock, grabbing a spur of rock for a split second, before dropping back down to the place he’d originally been standing, a flat, faintly etched stone half sunk in the ground.

There was an audible rumble, and part of the stone wall slid open. Romsca stared at it as the two horses walked through first, their hooves making soft clops on the rock and dirt floor. Lutran grabbed a torch from the pile stacked near the entrance, holding it in his teeth as he dug through his satchel for a flint.

Val looked at the opening, asking, “That’s ... yer home?”

The winged lizard looked at Shui, and they both snickered. “No, it’z juzt one entranze. And thiz iz my brother Jian, juzt zo you know.”

Val gave the male lizard a nervous look, nodding silently.

Lutran lit the torch, motioning with it. “Let’s go.”

Once they were all inside, one of the lizards stomped a clawed forefoot on another etched stone, scurrying up the wall, gripping certain key stones, before dropping back on the carved rock it had started on.

There was a rumble as the open section of the wall slid shut. Barranca closed his eyes, rubbed his forehead, and muttered, “Nobeast will ever know what happened to us.”

Lutran grinned morbidly. “That’s right, you don’t exist anymore. How does it feel to be separated from everything you loved? Knowing you’ll never get to see it again no matter how much you want to?”

Rocks shoved him. “Whoa, that’z harsh. Didn’t mom tell you not to play with your food’z feelingz?”

Lutran kept from dropping the torch, grumbling, “It’s called cruel irony.”

“Cruel iz right ... what’z with you right now?” Drip looked a little worried. “I mean, true, I’m zure we’ll eat them, but there’z no reazon to mentally torture them.”

“Izn’t that juzt wrong?” Rocks frowned.

Lutran’s green eyes gleamed. “What do you think they did to me? Come on, let’s just let Lord Isan deal with them.”

The otter stomped off. Shui looked at Val, shaking her head. “Zometimez our brother is mentally unztable.”

Jian nodded. “Moztly when he’z upzet, I’ve noticed. I think he exprezzez all negative emotion through anger.”

Val crossed her arms, sighing, “Just like Rom.”

She frowned, asking, “Yer ... really gonna eat us?”

“Well .. maybe not you, zinze you zaved Lutran’z life.” Shui kept pace with the vixen. “There iz the law after all ... good for good and bad for bad. But probably the otherz. Zome of them do look pretty tazty.”

“Hey, those’re me friends ... they’re like .. all I got inna world. Almost alla it. Ya can’t jist kill ‘em, they’ve never hurt ya!”

Drip fell in with them, nodding. “That iz true .. not perzonally anyway. Father doez have an open mind about furbeaztz, that’z why he would take Lutran into our family. Perhapz he would let you plead their caze, az at this time, you are the only one who haz done a favor for the dragonz.”

“Ya’d .. let me do that? But I thought ya hated all vermin like Lutran.” Val was confused.

Rocks shrugged. “You’re all furbeaztz to uz. Cauze you all have fur, not zcalez ... which are way more amazing on all acountz.”

Shui poked him. “Hey, be nize, they’re our gueztz.”

“Don’t get too attached to them.” Jian scurried over a boulder, wings folding flat against his back as he did so. “I doubt zhe can plead good enough to keep all of them alive.”

Val glared at him. “Huh, how do ya know? I kin try.”

Jian shrugged. “Go ahead, we won’t ztop you trying.”

He bounded over the rocky floor, further down the tunnel. Val fell in with Romsca, muttering, “Ya hear that?”

“I don’t think ya can do it.”

“Wull thanks fer the confidence.” Val grumbled.

Romsca sighed. “I’m sorry Val, but I just don’t see how. Not with Lutran involved. If there’s two beasts he hates, it’s me’n Barranca. Just ... make sure Xzaris gits outa this.”

The ferret shrugged. “What does it even matter?”

“I just killed meself ta save ya, trust me, it matters.” Romsca scowled.

He sighed. “Sorry Rom. I jist ... don’t feel like I kin do nothin’. Hellgates, I can’t even see where we are.”

Romsca looked away, muttering. “I donno what went wrong .. it weren’t supposed ta work like that.”

They fell silent, Romsca watching the torches’ ghostly flicker on the cold stone walls. The roof was far above them, so high up it was long lost in the darkness, and the floor was a continual slow slant downward.

Carvings lined the walls here and there, telling tales of long lost times and a long lost race. Xzaris stumbled on the rocky floor, falling against Val, who crumpled with him. “Aghh, yeesh yer heavy.”

Romsca pulled him onto his paws, sighing, “Look, put yer arm over me shoulder, that’ll work better.”

“I hate this.” Xzaris looked honestly ashamed. “I’m sorry I’m such a drag ... I can’t do nothin’ ... bet I can’t even forge.”

“Yeeeeaa ...” Val shook her head. “Probably not the best idea.”

Xzaris scowled. “See, I’m worthless. I can’t build ships, can’t sail, can’t forge, an’ can’t fight. What’s left?”

Val looked hopeful. “I betcha ya kin still sing!”

“That helps.” He shook his head. “They’re gonna kill us anyway, maybe it’s a good thing.”

Romsca stared at the ground. “I can’t believe Ignasa wants it.”

Xzaris paused, before nodding. “That’s right .. ya said ya saw him. What was he like Rom? Cause I asked him ta save me in prison .. but I never saw him.”

“He looks jist like the statue a the Unknown Lord, but gold, bright, glowin’ gold with blue eyes like fire an’ a crown set with sapphires. He said I was supposed ta live. I donno why, but he did. An’ I don’t think he’d let me get healed by a Flower of Icetor ... jist so I could get shredded. I donno no more.”

“I wish I coulda ... seen him. Wish he’d told me I had a purpose in life. It’s great fer ya though.” Xzaris sighed. “Maybe I’m jist lyin’ ta meself.”

“Look ..” Romsca cast a glance at the ground. “Maybe everybeast thinks yer worthless ... but I don’t. I gave ya ... like .. me own life or somethin’. However it works. An’ lemme tell ya, it hurt. Lots. I wouldn’t a done that fer somebeast I don’t care ‘bout.”

“Romsca ...” Xzaris paused, then blurted, “If ya’d known what’d happen .. that I’d be blind ferever ... would ya have still done it?”

Her ears shot up in surprise, before she thought for a moment. “Yea ... I think I woulda. I care ‘bout me friends matey, an’ we’ve been friends fer years. I’da done it even if’n I knew I’d lead ya round ferever ... cause I’m stupid like that. Cause I don’t think it’s dumb Xzaris, I just don’t. I donno how this’ll work out an’ I can’t say it’ll work out at all ... but we gotta stick tagether.”

Xzaris sighed, smiling weakly. “Wull, thanks. I jist ... wanted ta know if’n I still ... mattered.”

“Com’on, you’ll always matter ... yer our awesome pirate brother, right Rom?” Val asked.

Romsca rolled her eyes. “Sure, why not? Fer as long as it lasts.”

Val smiled, reaching up and grabbing their shoulders. “I’m glad I could cheer ya up. Now thinka things these dragons might want that we could give ‘em.”

Xzaris nodded, muttering, “Wull ya seem ta git ‘long with ‘em fine ... ask ‘round afore we get there. See what’cha kin find out.”

“Right. I’m ona case mates.” Val fell out of step with them, blue eyes gleaming with new purpose.

Romsca put Xzaris’s paw over her shoulder, shaking her head. “Who woulda guessed Val might actually be able ta save us one day?”

Xzaris smiled the tiniest bit. “Wull without her, we might nota ever gotten home. She’s braver’n any us woulda thought.”

><><

“Clecky, what do we do?” Tansy had remained silent for what seemed like hours, but now she couldn’t keep from speaking. The two were lying flat on the damp floor, in the storage area beneath the lower deck .. likely two feet high at most.

The hare stirred in the darkness, whispering, “I donno for sure me’gel, we’re in a bally pile a trouble, that’s for sure.”

“Clecky ...” The hedgehog swallowed hard. “I’m scared ... what will they do to our friends? What will they do to us?”

“Well now, they’re a rather unpredictable lot if you ask me. So my thought is to get the lay of the land, we do look like pirates wot?”

“But they weren’t fooled ... they knew!” Tansy protested.

The hare sat up carefully, but still knocked his head on the deck overhead. “Ow ... me’gel I think that had to do with the ship. And even if it didn’t, we don’t have a bally choice, do we? Come on now, I think they’re gone, help me with this door.”

Tansy pushed with him, and it lifted some. “Go on, I’ve got the bally thing.”

The hedgehog crawled out into the dark hold, and Clecky followed, a scraping creak echoing through the empty ship as the trapdoor was closed. “Come on, follow me. We’ve got to get off this ship, wot?”

“And ... after that?”

“Now me’gel, this is one a those plans that happens as we go about it ya know?”

Tansy sighed. “In other words ... you don’t have a plan, do you?”

Clecky grumbled. “I do; get off the bally rotten ship. Now follow me.”

The two crept up the hold’s ladder, peeking their heads above the deck. Clecky nodded. “All clear wot? Pretty sure there’s some guard chaps somewhere or other.”

They climbed out of the hold, and Clecky looked around. “To the boats me’gel.”

“But aren’t we moored on the dock?” Tansy asked. “Can’t we just use it?”

“Hrmph, I suppose so, I suppose so. Just what they’d be thinkin’ we’d do though.”

“Halt! Stay where ya are!”

Tansy grabbed Clecky’s paw as two ratguards materialized from the shadows. “General thought there might be more of ya idiots hangin’ ‘bout.”

Clecky shook his paw free, winking at the hedgehog. “Keep behind me, we’ll give ‘em wot for.”

“Oh no ya won’t ... mate, this one talks like one a them stupid rabbits!” The guard scoffed, jabbing his trident at Clecky.

“I say, you vermin chaps are pretty dull, I’m not a stupid rabbit, I’m a stupid hare.”

“Aye that ya is, now git yer paws up.”

Clecky laughed. “I’ll put ‘em up fatguts, but you won’t like it!”

He lashed forward with a hard right, smashing his paw into the rat’s jaw so hard his head jerked back and there was an audible snapping. The hare seized his fallen foe’s trident, wheeling around and bringing it against the other guard.

The rat blocked Clecky’s initial thrust, but the hare countered with a quick slash, catching the prongs of the guard’s trident in his and ripping it from his opponent’s grasp. He threw the two weapons away, grabbing the unfortunate guard by his throat. “Sorry chap, nothin’ personal wot?”

The hare punched him hard in the muzzle, dropping the limp body to the deck a second later.

“Clecky ... you didn’t kill them did you?” Tansy sounded horrified.

“Well ... yes, the first one. I may have knocked the second one a bit cuckoo, but I think he’ll live. Now let’s hurry off this tub and see wot we can bally well find out ‘bout this place.”

The two hurried to the rope ladder hanging down to the dock, Clecky climbing down it first. "Come on gel, paw over paw, don't look down, that's the ticket."

Tansy carefully slipped a footpaw over the railing, gripping the ladder tightly. She descended slowly, paws almost slipping several times as the rungs were damp and slick from sea spray, but she reached the dock in safety.

Morning was just dawning, a cloudy gray dawn that leaned toward a drizzle rather than sunshine. The air was near still and almost sultry, but the cool breeze blowing off the ocean made it bearable.

Clecky straightened his collar, nodding to the hedgehog. "Come on then, time to mingle with the natives, so to speak. Are my ears quite tucked away, eh?"

"Quite, but you really should work on your slang."

"You too gel, but yes. Now hurry along wot?" The hare started walking down the length of the dock, and Tansy followed with a sigh. They reached land, and an old cobblestone road winding its way along the curving shore.

Already creatures could be seen, two fisherbeasts, wrapped in threadbare cloaks, hurried past them with dual nods of respect. A little boy in ragged clothing ducked his head as he ran by, hardly meeting their gazes, almost avoiding them.

Clecky nodded. "Hmm .. gel, it seems as though they acknowledge each other at least, perhaps we should do the same."

A tall weasel on a brown steed came towards them, and Clecky tipped his hat ... being careful not to take it completely off. The mounted creature gave him a rather disgusted glare as if he'd expected to have the hare bow before him and kicked his walking horse into a trot.

"He wasn't very nice." Tansy gave his retreating form a look of rebuke.

"He's a pirate, wot?" Clecky observed quietly as a scraggly young maid in her older teenage seasons passed them, and he dipped his head in greeting.

She stared at him like he had two heads and tripped on the paving stones, falling to her knees.

"I say ..." Clecky began, before catching himself. "Hey now, no need for that ... lemme help ya."

He offered her his paw, but she shook her head, scrambling to her paws and bowing several times. "No ... no ... I'm sorry sir, I ain't mean nothin' ... jist on me way ta work capt'n ... do let a poor girl be!"

"Well me'gel, I meant no harm .."

It was just as well the girl had run away and didn't hear Clecky lose his accent. Tansy frowned. "What a strange place this is ... why didn't she think she could talk to you? She was afraid, you could see it in her eyes."

"I donno gel, maybe she thought I'd be a bit like the rude weasel that went by two ticks ago."

"But Clecky, she was scared. Really scared, and not just of getting rude looks."

The hare shook his head. "We'll just have to be on guard. And I'd like to get some info too ... hmm. In my long traveler experience, the best place for gossip and such is the local tavern wot?"

"Clecky!" Tansy whispered. "Is that safe?"

"No, not much is at this point. Brace yourself me'gel, go with the flow of things."

"Uhhh .... and ... where would one even be?" Tansy sounded less than excited.

Clecky nodded to a ragged stoat who looked in his middle seasons, though his gaunt features gave him an air of premature age. "Mate, where's the nearest tavern?"

The creature stared at the hare dumbly, before pointing back the way he'd come. "Jist 'round that bend ...?"

Clecky nodded smartly. "Thanks mate."

Tansy cast a glance at the stoat as they walked on down the road, muttering, "Clecky, he's staring at us."

And he was too, almost gawking in stupidity as he walked away until he ran into what looked like a messenger boy and fell to scolding him.

"Well at least he's distracted. I think our disguise might be a bit see-through, we need to work on our pirate sides."

"But I don't have one." Tansy protested.

Cleckly sighed. "Well then blend into the crowd, vanish and whatnot. Hey, here we are!"

Their walk had brought them to a rundown building perched on the edge of the seven foot drop leading down to the strand. In the gray morning it looked mournful, a rickety sign swinging from the roof on rusty chains. Everything about the place looked old and broken, like something abandoned and perhaps haunted.

The side door creaked open, and Tansy almost expected to see something along the lines of a skeleton. However a scantily dressed ratmaid was what made an appearance, dumping a pail of unrecognizable scraps out.

Clecky straightened his hat, beckoning for her to follow and walked up the steps. Tansy cast a few glances about, before sighing and doing what he wanted, though every fiber in her body told her this was a horrible idea.

><><

The journey into the mountains seemed to last forever, and as they went, it became evident that the system of caves they were in wasn't going to end any time soon.

Sayna had to ride Summer, she was doing very poorly, especially as time went on. Romsca's feet ached, to say the least, and she rather despised the thought. However there was no denying it, she was tired, and so was Xzaris. Even Val looked a little sleepy.

A little light started to infiltrate the cavernous room they were in, so high and so wide it was futile to imagine how big it really was. Romsca wondered if they were somehow going to find themselves in daylight, and as they rounded a bend they did ... in a very odd way.

They didn't leave the caves, not in the least, but shafts of cold gray light filtered down through the ceiling many hundreds of feet above them. Lutran put out his torch, as though he wouldn't need it anymore, and started up the rocky incline that faced them. Romsca couldn't help noticing the lizard sentinels standing on ledges in the walls, watching them with heavy suspicion.

She pinned her ears and followed the otter, helping Xzaris up the rocky slope. It took a few minutes to climb to the top, but once she reached the ridge, she stopped still in her tracks. Romsca did have somewhat of an eye for beauty, albeit odd beauty, like storms, night, and the black orchids that grew in her uncle's garden, so the scenery did indeed impress her.

This cavern was truly massive, rifts in the ceiling lighting it stunningly. A river ran through it, cascading down the cave wall in a series of waterfalls. It created a sort of underground valley, fertile and lovely, with shafts of daylight reaching down into the earth it hid beneath.

It was odd to think of a cave as fertile, but this one was, filled with mosses, lichens, and fungi, even something that almost resembled grass. Countless lizards populated it, along with horses of every color, but they were not at all crowded. On the cave wall that hosted the sparkling waterfalls, the oddest of dwellings sat .. or more realistically, perched. Like a crazy playground of platforms and open aired pagodas, ladders and swinging bridges they trellised all across the wall, some on platforms, some carved from the cave itself. Some were fairly small, others were hugely elaborate ... or a lot of entirely connected little ones, something Romsca wasn't going to attempt to determine.

"Zee?" Shui was smiling widely at Val. "Thiz iz our home ... this iz the Vale of Dragonz."

It truly was, dragons were everywhere, all different sizes and colors. Though most of them seemed to be laying on the ledges and porches of their fantastical cliff-side town. A few were fishing in the streams with nets, others were working in what looked like fields of subterranean plants.

Lutran flicked a paw, motioning his prisoners should follow, and they did, whether they wanted to or not. Barranca's ears were pinned with apprehension; in contrast, while she did look afraid, Arashi seemed far more interested in her surroundings. Shilo walked as close to Durral as he could, shivering fitfully, at which the abbot had put a comforting paw on his shoulders.

Their captors led them down the slope into the cavern itself, where those that saw them looked up in confusion and aggression. Romsca knew she was the prey here, and it was an unsettling thought. The ferret cast a glance at Val to see the vixen was nibbling on her claws, hardly a good omen as that was always a sign of fear in her. Romsca did notice her friend shoot a couple dark glares at Lutran's back, and she truly felt sorry for Val. The vixen had tried to find good in the wrong beast, and the feeling of betrayal was always sickeningly painful.

When they neared the city on the wall, they were met by three lizards and two horses that spoke with Lutran and Jian for a few moments, before one of the lizards whisked away, back the way it had come. The others fell in with the group, giving the vermin dark glances.

They stopped at the base of the wall, not that far from the river, which Romsca could hear splashing in the background. There was silence of voices ... heavy, sultry silence she could almost feel. Everybeast was uncomfortable for various reasons of their own.

A few moments later, there was a movement on one of the lowest platforms, and a large lizard ... as big as Lask Frildur, though of the blue species, walked into view. He stopped at the edge of a platform at least twelve feet from the ground, and all their escorts bowed, even Lutran.

Romsca slowly knelt as well, something about this beast's air of aged wisdom called for it. Her companions did as she had, whether for her reasons, or the fact that they did not wish to unduly anger their captors, a thought that wasn't far from Romsca's mind either.

The blue dragon paused for a moment, before bounding down a series of stair-like platforms, moving with grace that contradicted his powerful form. Metal jewelry glinted from various places on his body, his legs, his fin-like ears, on the ridges above his eyes, around his neck and on his forehead as a coronet.

He dropped to the ground, speaking to Jian first. "Zon, what iz thiz?"

"You better azk Lutran, he knowz more than uz. The little fox waz looking for him."

The dragon looked at the otter, asking, "Well, az your brother zayz. What iz going on, and why did you bring theze vermin into our landz?"

"I didn't want to .." Lutran began, but Shui interrupted.

"He wazn't being fair, father! The little fox zayz zhe zaved hiz life, and Ublaz haz driven her friendz out of the city. And they have two mize with them, like the zlavez they have zometimez, but theze are their friendz."

Isan flicked his tongue thoughtfully. "Hmm ... zhe zaved your life? You never zaid anything about thiz to me."

This was directed to Lutran, who scowled. "That was between me and her, I said I wouldn't kill her, and I didn't kill her."

"But what about uz? Zon, you are one of uz, and you know our lawz. If zhe zaved you, then we all owe her our gratitude."

Lutran's lip twitched, but he bowed his head in submission to this fact. He looked up again, grumbling, "Yes, she isn't the problem. But even as she has a claim against me, I have a claim against two of her friends. Even if you spare all the others .."

He pointed straight at Romsca, sending chills up and down her spine. "Kill this wench and her cursed uncle!"



Chapter 27 Eyes of the Emperor

TotO &#039;Yer not good at this&#039;

Merith's smarter then you might think ..

Grath stared at the ground, she was too preoccupied with her swirling thoughts to look up. Tears hung unshed on her lashes, she held them in with difficulty ... what had gone wrong to let things come to this? Was it poor planning on her part? Was it just the fact they had bothered to attempt this at all?

"Well, you are silent, I must say."

Grath didn't meet the emperor's sickening gaze again, she did her best to act like she'd never heard him.

Ublaz's voice was a cold smirk. "Honestly, I'm surprised you don't fly in my face and curse me."

She didn't respond, and the pine marten answered himself. "I suppose that's not how you show anger."

There was silence as his answer, and he sneered. "Oh, you can be as silent as you wish, but you will speak in the end. I can make the hardest beast talk, and you hardly qualify as such. Come now, you want answers, I know it. You want to know how any mortal beast could do what I did to your dear family."

Grath clenched her teeth, finally persuaded into words. "Because you're a vermin, that's why."

"Oh really? Is that all you have to say?" Ublaz laughed. "That's truly pathetic on your part, daughter of Lutra. Here I thought this might be interesting. I see I'm going to have make this conversation worthwhile."

Grath didn't look up, and Ublaz curled his whiskers around a claw. "I do admit vermin are quite superior to woodlanders, after all, we do have the killing instincts in this world. But no, that is not the reason. At least not at it's core. But it might be hard for a delicate woodland maid to hear this about her family, to paint them in a darker light than the angels she perceived them as."

"I'll believe no slander about Holt Lutra. Nothing you'd say about them would be true anyway." Grath's voice was choked, but determined.

Ublaz sighed. "Ahh, foolish, bigoted woodlander, you think you know everything don't you? So proud, like all your kind. Well I'm not at all sorry to burst your conceited bubble. You were brought up to think all my kind were evil ..."

"Not all your kind." She snapped. Whether she liked it or not, the way this beast was trying to fit her into a generic mindset was infuriating her. "Just those that act like you."

"Have you ever cared to wonder what it's like to be in our shoes?" He continued on like he'd never even heard her. "No, I'm sure not. But what I did was not just for the sake of blood and plunder ... it was justice. And now that Lutra's last daughter is in chains before me, the circle of justice will finally be complete, and my conscience will rest again."

Grath snarled. "Conscience? Like you have one. What are you playing at, why don't you just throw me in prison and leave me be?"

"Ha, you know, you almost amuse me with how ignorant you are. Or perhaps you are pretending ignorance. It wouldn't be the first time a war was fought over those pearls, and long before I did anything your holt killed other woodlanders for them .. vermin had nothing to do with it."

At this, Grath looked up. "How do you know that?"

Ublaz sneered, not answering her as such. "Oh, so you were just bluffing. I knew it."

He stood up, pushing his desk chair back and stalking around it toward her. The pine marten grabbed her chin, forcing her to look into his eyes as he spoke. "Your holt destroyed everything that ever mattered to me. They stole my greatest treasures. So in justice, I've done the same ... you know something? In a twisted way, the look on your face mirrors mine, long ago."

Grath wrenched her head away, crying, "I am nothing like you!"

"True, you aren't." Ublaz sneered. "There is one little difference. You didn't get to see them die in front of you, did you? But perhaps I can remedy that."

"Wh .. what?" Grath gaped at him. What was he saying?

"You find it hard to believe I have the power to do that?" Ublaz was clearly enjoying the situation. "I assure you I do."

Grath tried to wrap her mind around this, and all the things it might entail. "But you said ... you killed them already!"

Were some of her tribe still prisoners here? Was there a chance she could save them? But why had he kept them alive only to kill them in front of her ... when he hadn't known she was alive?

Ublaz slipped a paw onto the clear jade orb on his desk, sitting on a black metal framework. "No, no, your wild theories are wrong entirely. I can assure you the rest of Holt Lutra is just as dead as you soon will be."

Grath looked away as Ublaz ran a single claw around the glassy surface his paw sat on. "It's funny really ... forty some seasons past I was standing in your place .. captive, broken, and slated for death. Now it's your turn, and I have the power. It's a good feeling. Not for you, but for me."

Ublaz swiped his paw across the crystal orb, sneering, "Now let me show you how it feels to watch your friends die."

Grath shivered, staring at the pine marten, wondering what he was planning and how he could possibly do it.

He tapped the green glass, and cloudy pictures began forming in the depths of it. Ublaz smiled sadistically, walking around the desk to where Grath stood, unable to fight back due to her bonds.

The pine marten pushed her forward, ordering, "Look into the crystal, and you will see the past."

The picture was clear now, the crimson throne room she and her friends had earlier been dragged into easily recognizable. However it was also different, obviously daylight, and the group of beasts there made Grath's heart skip a few beats. "Marine! Coral .... Lutran!"

"Oh, you do know them. Good. It wouldn't be so effective if you didn't." Ublaz's voice was lost in the background as Grath stared as the scene of seasons past unfolded before her as if it was happening again.

Her siblings were led into that throne room, just like she had been, and the female rat who had taken them in bowed before Ublaz. "Sire, I present .."

Ublaz stood up in an instant, voice harsh. "General. What do you mean by bringing Lutrians into my palace?"

The rat stood quickly, looking confusedly at the otters. "Milord .. I .. is this thing wrong? They are simply prisoners, and it is costmary to bring all such beasts before our Emperor .."

Ublaz snarled, pointing crimson stained claws at Marine. "That one's shoulder. He bears the mark of a warrior of Holt Lutra, and you bring them before me? Kill them all, Lutra shall have no beast left breathing on this earth!"

Grath pinned her ears, whispering, "No .."

The tall ferret captain said the same thing, a look of horror coming across his face. "What? Why? No!"

The picture Ublaz growled, ordering, "I said kill them!"

The rat general raised her trident at this, aiming her weapon at Coral, but Marine jumped in front of his sister, chains pulled taunt in front of him in a semblance of a weapon. Coral staggered, falling to the ground as the rat ducked, impaling her trident through his torso with brutal accuracy.

Grath gasped, wanting to clamp her paws over her mouth, but they were tied behind her back. "No .. no don't .."

Her voice was barely a whisper, for she knew it was already done, but the words still came. "Please don't!"

The brown ferret leaped forward, and three ratguards and a lizard attacked him, throwing him to the floor and holding him there, but they couldn't stop his voice. "Don't! They're prisoners, they're helpless .. what did they ever do to you?"

The lizard slammed his muzzle into the marble to silence him, and the rat general ran a struggling Coral through just as she got to her paws. Grath's vision blurred as her sister fell transfixed to the floor, and there was a shriek from the rat trying to kill Lutran. The black otter launched himself at his attacker, sinking his teeth deep into his throat. They both fell to the floor, but the ratguard had done his duty .. Lutran tried to struggle to his feet, but fell back in both the rat's blood and his own, a gash across his chest.

Grath's breath was a shuddering sound, and she almost looked down, but the ferret captain's voice made her continue to watch. He struggled to his feet, yelling, "How could you?"

Ublaz raised one eyebrow, smile still lingering on his face. "Captain Conva, you do surprise me. Shouldn't you be worrying about your own life?"

Conva took an aggressive step forward, showing his fangs as he pinned his ears back. "My life? Why should I bother? It's gone already! Yes, I found your pearls, I murdered an entire people for them, and then they were stolen. But those otters deserved none of what I did to them, and now you kill them?"

Ublaz shook his head, voice smooth and patronizing. "Captain, they were only woodlanders. Why does this thing displease you so, surely you have killed many. Now I will offer you your life, if you will sail again for the pearls."

He held out his paw, ruby-set ring glittering in the light. Conva didn't hesitate, just spat in the direction of Ublaz, snarling, "Only woodlanders? Then what are you? Only a vermin, just like the rest of us! Wicked, just like we all are! By the name of Ignasa I curse you, servant of darkness, and I will never sail for you again!"

Grath stared in amazement, shocked amazement. Ublaz, standing beside her with a paw under her chin to make her watch, tensed. She heard him snap his claws, but the green orb continued on undaunted.

The change in the memory Ublaz's face was drastic, as his teeth clenched together in a truly furious glare. He reached for his cutlass, drawing it in one swift move. "Then you shall die!"

The ferret didn't have a chance to move, as Ublaz swung the sword down, severing his head from his body instantly. As he fell, Grath got a good view of the beast behind him .. a familiar little ferretmaid ... the one who had spared her life.

She stood in stunned silence, too shocked to cry out as the tears spilled from her green eyes, and Grath once again, knew just how she felt. Her own legs were shaking as Ublaz slammed a paw down on the crystal ball, and the picture faded away to nothing.

Grath's knees buckled, and she fell to the ground sobbing bitterly. No words could express her anger toward Ublaz, but she could not make herself fly in his face cursing, no matter how much she desired to. All she could do was sob helplessly, for the picture of her siblings deaths was seared into her mind.

She finally got enough of her voice back to whisper hoarsely, "I hate you."

Ublaz's voice was once again smooth, and he sneered, "Nobeast can understand such pathetic mumbling."

"I hate you!" Grath screamed with more force then she knew she possessed. "You're a murderer! We didn't deserve any of this you filthy worm! Justice? You call that Justice! Justice would be for Ignasa's fire to strike you down where you stand!"

"Ahh, but it won't." Ublaz smiled. "If your Ignasa really cared about any of you, why'd he let me do that? There is no evil, no good. It's all about how you look at it. At the end of the day, we're just beasts fighting aimless wars to benefit ourselves, for our own selfish purposes. I say it's justice, because it's justice to my mind. And since I have the upper paw .."

He leered in her face. "What you think doesn't matter. It never has, and it never will. You're helpless, and you can't stop any of this. Just give up and die. Or don't, and die anyway. You've never mattered, and you never will."

Grath stared wildly at the floor, breathing sharp and teeth clenched. How could she counter him? What could she possibly say to make him feel as broken and angry as she did?

But Ublaz was far faster when it came to mind manipulation. "Just so you know, your abbot and warrior mousewife are at the bottom of the sea. And say goodbye to your Redwall abbey. Sagitar!"

The door opened, and the general and two guards walked in. Ublaz smiled. "Throw her in the dungeons under heavy guard. Then bring me that black fox, I need to question him while I think of some ironically beautiful end for Lutra's last child."

Grath didn't struggle as they dragged her away, she just tried to keep from loosing her sanity as her mind raced desperately through futile schemes and haunting memories.

><><

"What chargez do you have againzt them?" Lord Isan asked, starting to look more interested in the situation.

Lutran took a breath, snapping, "They were in the attack on my holt, and so they're as guilty as any. They killed my parents, sister, and everyone else."

Isan nodded gravely. "Harzh chargez indeed. If this iz true, I will do az you wizh."

"Sire, that ain't fair!" Val stalked forward. "We'll testify for Romsca .. right Xzaris?"

The gray ferret nodded, growling, "Me an' Rom were jist twelve, we was cabin boys, an' Capt'n Conva wouldn't let us go onna raid. We didn't kill one Lutrain otter."

"Aye." Romsca nodded. "And though it seems he don't give one bloody care, but I spared his sister, an' she ain't dead."

"You're a lair vermin, Grath is ..." His eyes dulled a little, and he sighed. "Gone. Gone just like all of them."

"Grath?" Abbot Durral broke in. "Did you say Grath? She's not dead, she lives at my abbey! Sayna found her, and we raised her as one of our own."

Lutran stared at him. "What?"

"She's a beast of Redwall now." For once, Durral actually looked smug. "Sayna taught her archery, and she's quite a kind beast ... unlike her apparent brother."

Lutran couldn't say a word, just stammer a bit, before falling into momentary stunned silence. Val seized the opportunity. "Sire, I know what we is, an' I know some a what we've done as a people. But we ain't all like that! We seek yer help, against Ublaz."

"Hmm, yez, your emperor. But that'z not the only problem. I have to ztay true to our lawz, and you are Zampetrian vermin. Unlezz you can each do something for one of uz, our law zayz you must die. You and the ferretmaid may live, az well az the two mize, but the rezt will be killed." Lord Isan stated.

"No!" Romsca stepped in front of Arashi, Xzaris, and Barranca. "This is me family! They're all I got left!"

Val pleaded. "You can't jist kill them, they've not done anything to you! It ain't right, we could help ya!"

Lutran got his voice back, interrupting. "What can you tell us that we don't already know? Just be happy with what you get and give it up."

"I saved yer butt!" Val's voice was bordering on furious. "Suck up yer pride an' shut yer mouth!"

She yelled in Lord Isan's face, much to everybeast's surprise. "Ya value life so liddle? I went outa me way ta save his ungrateful tail, jist cause I saw me liddle brother in him .. I couldn't save Rust, an' trust me, Lutran ain't no Rust. Romsca saved two woodlanders from bein' eaten by yer freakish cousins an' took their deaths fer 'em! Xzaris saved me life, an' Ublaz blinded him jist cause he couldn't find six dumb pearls, Barranca gave up everythin' fer his niece, an' Shilo risked it all cause he had mercy on Xzaris when he was dyin'. Arashi ... Wull I donno know her that well, but if ya think ya kin just kill whoever ya want, wull then yer jist like Ublaz!"

Val took a slow step back, looking surprised at herself. "Eerrr ... I'm sorry sire .. I jist meant .. yer not givin' us a chance."

The lizard looked grave. "That iz a hard accuzation, fox."

"What she means is we kin help ya." Romsca broke in, stamping a paw. "We know things 'bout that city I'm sure even ya don't. And how long do ya think Ublaz will stay put? Yer hideout is great, but he's a psychic, all he has to do is capture one a ya an' it won't be a secret no more. An' even if he don't, don't expect him to put up with ya shootin' his wall guards ferever."

Lord Isan nodded slowly. "I don't."

"We can totally take him dad, we've done it before." Rocks broke in.

Xzaris shook his head. "Do ya have any clue how powerful his army is? At least seven hundred ratguards ..."

"Seventy crewed ships .." Romsca broke in.

"An' he's always makin' more Monitors!" Xzaris finished.

Val nodded. "There's more every season!"

Drip, standing nearby, broke in. "I'm zorry, but that iz not pozzible. Hiz Monitorz are juzt feralz, they have all the zame propertiez az uz."

"My zon iz right." Lord Isan agreed. "No matter how many he haz, they could not reproduze that fazt."

"What'da ya mean?" Romsca was confused. "He makes at least fifty a season!"

Drip frowned. "That'z not even biologically pozzible. Unlezz ... he'z found zome way to mutate them."

Isan shook his head. "We've known he had a lot. But if what you zay iz true, thiz iz a hard blow for uz."

"She has to be lying! There's no conceivable way!" Lutran scowled. "This is what I'm telling you father, she's a filthy liar!"

"It doez zeem impozzible." Isan frowned.

Xzaris snorted. "Whad'da ya even mean, we live in that city, not ya. Trust me, he does it."

Drip shook his head. "Father, if what they are zaying iz true, we need to lizten to them. The feralz are mindlezz and deadly, they are the mozt powerful weaponz Ublaz haz, even effective againzt uz. How many doez he have now?"

This was directed to the vermin, and Romsca shrugged. "Over five hundred?"

Barranca broke in. "At least seven hundred."

"All completely in hiz power?" Rocks gaped.

"Dad, you zaid he couldn't!" Shui was dismayed.

Lord Isan looked down, growling, "I didn't think he could. It doezn't make zenze. There iz no way even the feralz could reproduze and grow that fazt."

Romsca exchanged a glance with Val and Barranca. Isan turned to them, asking, "Where doez he keep the feralz?"

"What are ya talkin' 'bout, they're all over the city!" Xzaris sounded a little sarcastic.

"I meant, where doez he have the nezt?"

There was silence as they looked at each other .. nobeast knew. Romsca shook her head. "We .. donno."

"I ... I ... I might .." Shilo stammered. "I .. I've n .. never been there, but the g .. general talks about it s .. some. S .. she says it's .. beneath."

"Beneath what?" Barranca asked.

Shilo shrugged. "I .. I don't k .. know, I'm just a s .. simple guard."

Lord Isan seemed to think for a few minutes, before looking at Lutran. "I'm zorry zon, their deathz will have to wait. Zeven hundred feralz iz a threat to all of uz."

Lutran scowled. "Do we really need all of them?"

"Do you fail to zee the zeriouznezz of this?" Lord Isan looked slightly testy.

"No." Lutran bowed his head at last. "And I will honor your choice father."

He gave Romsca and Barranca a glance that screamed, 'for now'. Romsca lifted her chin, and her eyes darkened, sparkling with anger.

Isan nodded. "Shui, find them a plaze to zleep ... where we can keep an eye on them."

><><

Tansy knew none of this would end well, not with Clecky, and anyway, going into a vermin tavern was crazy to begin with. But there was no stopping that hare, he was determined, and in he would go.

"Clecky .." Tansy tried one more time, but he didn't even hear her. He pushed open the door, walking nonchalantly in, and with a final shudder of apprehension, the hedgehog followed him. Inside was just as shabby as outside, and as they came through the door, a raspy, squawking voice rang out, making them both jump.

"Awwwk, two weird beasts! Awwk!"

The two wheeled around to see a green, red, and blue feathered parrot watching them from the rafters with coal-black eyes.

"Pay no heed ta Buccaneer, what kin I be gettin' fer ya taday?"

A stoatmaid stood watching them from the counter, a sneering expression on her face .. she might have actually been attractive if it weren't for her heavy makeup, several scars lacing across the right side of her face, and a few premature creases under her eyes. She wore a pale green dress that was slipping off her shoulders, and Tansy mentally shuddered at the thought of wearing such a thing. However the stoat didn't seem embarrassed in the least.

Clecky placed a paw on the counter, asking, "What'cha got?"

The stoat drolly pointed at a chalk sign a little behind her written in poor hand. "Or are ya gonna tell me ya can't read."

Tansy felt if they expected beasts to be able to read the menu, they ought to write it better. However Clecky seemed pretty fluent in poor penship. "Hmm .. we'll take two turtle egg omlets, and porridge .. an' I'll have fried seaweed ... octopus .. hmm how quaint, I'll have some .. an' shushi .. whatever ya call it."

The maid snorted. "Is that all?"

"Wull we'll have two mugs a grog ta."

"An' how 'bout ya show me the color a yer money."

Clecky pulled a pawfull of gold coins from his pocket, salvaged from the ship. "Will this do?"

The stoatmaid shrugged, though admittedly, she looked suspicious. "As long as it's money. Have a seat an' I'll be with ya shortly."

The tavern was almost empty, aside from a few beasts who looked like they'd drunk far too much. Tansy and Clecky sat down at one of the tables and the hedgehog shivered, whispering. "Did you see the way she looked at us? She was suspicious!"

"Now gel, we're not doing anything wrong as such, an' I thought my pirate act was reasonable. After all, they're irresponsible with money and probably spend it just as they get it. So we're fitting in, wot?" Clecky shrugged, pointing at a rat laying across the table a few feet away. "Doubt he was very responsible with his funds."

"Well ... no, but Clecky, somehow it seems off .. the way they look at us, like they can see through us." Tansy gulped.

Clecky thought for a moment, before nodding. "Hmm ... well, we'll just keep an eye out. Now we need to work on getting some info, if I do say so myself."

Tansy looked around nervously. "Well ... do hurry."

Clecky scanned the building carefully .. really, there wasn't much to see. Just battered old walls, tattered furniture, and the bar counter with its shelves of mugs and barrels of grog. The brown stoatmaid was filling two tankards, with her back turned to them.

"Funny, I did expect more of 'em to be here." Clecky muttered. "But we'll work with what we got."

He turned to the rat at the table next to theirs, asking, "What'cha drinkin' mate? I'm new ta this tavern, what's the best thing here?"

The beast looked up in honest confusion, he had rugged but fairly friendly features, and looked like he had seen not a few fights. His face was slightly flushed with alcohol, and his voice was a little slurred. "Uhh .. seaweed grog ain't bad. Ale's best though."

Clecky grinned. "Thanks mate. Say, what's the latest news? I've been out sailin'."

"Ain't ya a capt'n er somethin'?" The rat was bewildered. "Why da ya stoop ta talk ta me?"

Clecky blinked, recovering quickly. "Hey, a beast's got the right ta treat other's decent don't he? Say, I'll buy ya a drink."

The rat stared. "But I'ma ratguard .."

"I insist, hey barmaid! Another mug of ale!"

She turned to look at him, before nodding drolly.

"So matey, what's the latest word onna streets?"

The rat blinked once more, before asking, "What'da ya wanna know?"

"Oh anythin' interestin'." Clecky remained casual.

"Ehm ... well, ya did hear 'bout that ship with the woodlanders disguised as some'a us? Emperor was furious .. oh sure, he hid it behind that smile'a his, but he was furious. They may just be woodland scum but ... ya could pity 'em anyway."

He looked up, as if realizing what he'd just said. "Oh no ... no I ain't meanin' no treason, I promise I ain't! But his majesty's ... righteous fury a'course .. is hard fer anybeast ta bear."

Clecky kept a level head, to his credit. "Yea, sure is. What'cha reckon he'll do ta 'em?"

"It's probably the stake fer em, er worse, dependin' on his fancy."

Tansy paled, but looked intently into her drink to hide it. Merith walked by, plopping a drink and some of the food Clecky had ordered in front of him, before heading back towards the counter. The hare passed the ale to the rat, who hesitantly took it, before taking a quick swig.

"Aye, sounds typical." Tansy knew Clecky had to be recoiling inside, and greatly admired his skill at hiding it. "So what else is new?"

"Wull ... capt'n Barranca's got a warrant on his head ... Capt'n Xzaris got killed an' Capt'n Romsca went down at sea ... I donno how long ya been gone. Rasconza went an' started a war .. them three friends is just pityable .. whut the Emperor did ta 'em."

He winced. "Not that he don't have good reasons a course ... no disrespect hear .. I'm completely loyal ya know .."

The rat was looking exceedingly nervouse. "Look I gotta .. get back. General wants me onna mornin' guard .. Thanks .. fer the drink ... kin I pay ya back?"

"Wull no chap ... I bought it fer ya."

It was a good thing the ratguard was more concerned with leaving than noticing the oddities about Clecky, especially his usage of the word 'chap'. He pushed his chair back, throwing a dull copper coin on the table and stumbling hurriedly out of the tavern.

Tansy breathed again, for unlike the rat, she had caught Clecky's break in accent. The hare frowned, shaking his head. "Me'gel, I fear this place ain't all I thought it was. Bit more complicated I'm afraid."

The green parrot was hopping from sagging rafter to sagging rafter, its claws making disturbing scratching noises. Clecky picked up the two wooden sticks beside his plate, looking at them oddly. "An' wot sorta contraption is this?"

Tansy shrugged. "I don't see a knife .."

Clecky poked one of the sticks through a chunk of meat, popping it into his mouth. "Wot a bally idiotic eatin' device .. no wonder these beasts all look so underfed."

"I wish you'd keep your voice down." Tansy muttered, not looking excited about even sipping her ale.

"Oh .. right gel. This is just ... inhumane." He gave the sticks a baleful glance.

A soft paw suddenly ran down the length of his arm, causing him to stiffen. The stoatmaid was behind him, and she coyly took his paw in hers, adjusting the sticks until he was holding them both in one paw, between different sets of claws. "Ya do it like that, capt'n."

Her voice was laced with mocking, flirting sarcasm. Clecky swallowed, nodding. "Much obliged .."

She laughed, a melodious .. but somehow not very nice sound. "Oh, yer not very good at this, are ya?"

She took his chin in her paw, smiling a little evilly. "Yer almost cute ... for a woodlander."

Tansy pinned her ears miserably, and Clecky would have too .. but they were already pinned under his hat. The stoat let her paw fall away. "What are ya, some sorta squirrel or rabbit?"

"I'm not a rabbit ..." Clecky said it indignantly. He seemed to think for a moment, before growling, "I'm a hare, a boxing hare gel, so be careful what you do."

"Oh, is that a threat?" She snickered. "I'm the one who should give out the threats. Ya is a woodlander on vermin soil after all rabbit."

Clecky growled. "You're going to turn us in then?"

"Maybe." The barmaid's smile was conniving. "But maybe I won't if'n ya make it worth my while."

"And what would make it 'worth yer while'?" Celcky was not convinced.

"Oh .." The stoat looked around at the near empty tavern. "Money. An' lots. More'n what I'd get paid by the Emperor to turn ya in. But then my mistress would take most of that. So at this time rich one, it seems a good idea ta keep this ... private. I've got a lot of information ta sell ya. Yer with Capt'n Romsca, right?"

Clecky didn't say anything for a moment. "Maybe we are, and maybe we ain't."

The stoat smiled alluringly. "Ya kin drop the accent pretty boy, it's painful ta hear. An' that's what I thought. I expect ya wanna know where yer capt'n went?"

"Well .. I didn't say she was my captain .."

"Oh come now, ya an' me both know that means yes. After all, Romsca had two woodlanders with her when she 'scaped last night."

Clecky and Tansy exchanged a glance, before the hare asked, "What did they look like?"

The barmaid grinned, rubbing her claws together. "Pay up rabbit."

Clecky dug in his pocket, pulling out two silver coins. He handed them to her, raising an eyebrow. She shrugged. "One of 'em was a gold maid with real long hair ... looked kinda sick. The other one was a brown thing with blue-ish eyes that looked laughable in decent clothes ... couldn't pull off pirate anymore'n I could pull off innocence. Oh, Romsca tried ta scruff 'em up with dirt'n fake scars, but they weren't no vermin. Only the dark hid 'em."

Tansy gulped. "Sayna and Father Abbot?"

"Oh, ya do know 'em. Wull then, ya wanna know wear they went eh?" She looked expectantly at Clecky, who shoved a few more coins in her direction.

She pocketed each one greedily, before shrugging. "She took 'em outside the city walls ta git away from Ublaz."

"Alright. What town would they be heading to, wot direction is it in, and how far?" Clecky gave her a gold piece.

The stoatmaid stared at him, before laughing; laughing like it was some sick joke. "Aha .. haha ... woodlanders fer sure! Ya fools! Haha, towns? Outside this city? Oh no, there are no towns, an' more the fools' be any who try ta build one! Ha! Will ya git any stupider?"

Clecky was not impressed, and he raised an eyebrow. "Well me'gel, care to tell us why there are no towns? One would think beasts as determined as you would long have tamed all this island."

She motioned he would have to pay again, and the hare did, with a sigh of longsuffering. The stoat grinned .. not a nice grin. "Cause the ghosts live out there, or whatever they is. Powerful 'nough to slash a fishin' skiff ta shreads, carnivorous, an' never let a beast who leaves the city ta come back livin'. Nobeast's really seen one, though they say they scream like dyin' beasts an' when they run the air is filled with the sound a slashin' blades."

Tansy gasped. "And Abbot and Sayna are out with them?"

"Wull it was that or face the Emperor's sure fury. He'll stake ya or hang ya or gut ya or feed ya 'live ta his pets soon as look at ya ... all with a smile on y'know. An' he hates woodlanders. So I'm thinkin' Romsca was doin' her best. After all, ain't much else she could do, she's facin' death or certain death, poor fool. An' yer inna same boat. Must be rough."

"Yea ..." Clecky frowned. "How are ya so sure?"

She shrugged. "Wull that's jist it, nobeast's gone lookin' fer the ghosts. So the outcomes a little less sure'n if ya git caught by Ublaz .. he don't keep a prisoner longer'n a week or so ya' know. An' I promise he don't pardon none."

Tansy whimpered, turning desperate eyes to Clecky. "Oh Clecky ... what do we do? What about our friends?"

"Oh, there's more'a ya?" The barmaid raised an eyebrow.

"The .. the emperor got them." The hedgehog whispered.

The stoat wasn't all that sympathetic. "Woodlanders too huh? Wull they'll be dead afore tomorrow."

Clecky growled. "Look, jist tell us which way this .. Romsca went."

"Yer gonna haveta pay. An' if'n ya pay 'nough, I'll even give ya an' ol' boat an' help cover fer ya while ya row 'round the wall."

The hare scowled, before digging in his pockets, pulling out a pawfull of sparkling gold and silver, even a few jewels. "Would this suffice? Give us the boat, my food, and don't breath a word of us."

She laughed. "Oh, this whole island's gonna know yer here."

The two looked alarmed, Clecky angry, and the barmaid snickered, deception gleaming in her eyes as she pocketed the coins. "Yer gonna be inna boat see, ya ain't gonna be here. But the guards won't know that, all they'll know is I saw two woodlanders in this city, sneaking about an' called the authorities like a good liddle maid. They'll search all over til they find the missin' boat an' conclude ya met yer end inna Wilds cause yer stupid an' don't know better. Hellgates, I might even git 'nother reward fer tippin' 'em onta yer trail. How's that fer a plan?"

She sneered. "Oh yea, an' ya best move. Boat's tied up onna peir outside. It's me mistress's, see it don't come back, cause that's whut I think'a her. But she'll be here soon, an' she's one'a Ublaz's spies ... Ya won't git no deals from her."

Clecky stood up quickly, and Tansy did too, as the barmaid walked to the counter and pulled out a small crate, bringing it to the table an staking Clecky's meal in it. She shoved it into his paws, a little hurry in her voice. "Go, out that side door, I kin see Kia comin'."

She was looking out one of the stained front windows. Clecky blinked, before nodding, grabbing Tansy's paw and pulling her toward the door. They made it out a few moments before Kia walked in, greeted by a loud squawk from Buccaneer. "Awwk! Mistress Kia! Awwk!"

The stoatmaid was now sedately wiping all tell-tale crumbs off Clecky's table. Kia scowled at the parrot, before scowling at her hired help. "Wull? What's been goin' on? No fights I hope. I'd like ta think ya kin handle mornin' shift on yer own, Merith."

Merith shrugged nonchalantly. "A coure Kia, after all, nothin' interestin' ever happens mornin's."

><><

Hood was escorted through the halls of the palace by two ratguards, and with his paws tightly bound and lizards everywhere, there wasn't much he could do. So he complied in dark silence.

The guards stationed at intervals around the elegant trap he was caught in gave him dark looks, the look one gives a traitor. Because he was a traitor in their eyes, even though he wasn't from their nation. He was a fox who threw his lot in with woodlanders, what could he expect?

He lifted his chin, refusing to bow to them. Vermin would never intimidate him into following their ways again.

His guards pushed him through a door into a well decorated chamber, the décor undoubtedly some of the finest on the island. The Emperor was waiting for him, a half, insincere smile on his face. Hood knew that smile. This beast wanted something from him.

"I'm pleased you could join me ... care to tell me your name?"

Hood glared at him a moment, before muttering, "Nighthood."

The emperor smiled, though it was obvious he knew it was a half truth. "And I am Emperor Ublaz, do have a seat, Nighthood."

One of the guards shoved a chair in his direction, and the two shoved him into it. Hood complied silently, this was a sick form of interrogation.

"So." Ublaz spoke amiably, but firmly. "I find it ... say .. interesting, that a fox such as yourself would bring such a dishonor upon himself. Traveling with woodlanders? Helping them? What brought you so low?"

Hood's voice was flat, after all, at this point, any emotion would only show weakness. "In my country, we are not fool enough to divide species by things they cannot control."

Ublaz stroked his beard. "Really. Then I'll take three guesses at your origins. The Great Northern Iles? Southsward? Or is it Icetor? Yes, I think Icetor ... you have the accent, the false sense of chivalry, and the hair ... born amongst the Flowers were you? One of the warriors who never die?"

The pine marten walked behind Hood's chair, picking up his ponytail that fell to his shoulder blades. "Fascinating. I can feel the magic even now ... weakened, but alive."

Hood's violet-gray eyes followed Ublaz's every move with suppressed anger. The Emperor smiled at this. "You can talk to me Nighthood, after all, we are on the same side."

"I am not of your country." Hood stated. "And I bow to nobeast."

"You truly amuse me." Ublaz grinned, laughing a little. "Who gave you such wounds?"

Hood's eyes flashed, but he said nothing.

Ublaz nodded. "Oh, the memory is as painful as they were? I understand. You can tell me .. the work of woodlanders?"

"No!" Hood barked sharply for one second, before quelling his anger again.

"Really? Who did you anger then?"

Something in Ublaz's eyes told Hood he already had a good guess. "You tell me."

"Mmm .." The pine marten smiled. "You are good at hiding your thoughts ... but you aren't that good."

Ublaz stood still for a moment, before reaching a paw out and meeting Hood's gaze. "Ahh, I see pain, I see failure .. loss, betrayal. Things that rest upon my heart as well. A horrible accident ... a furious brother .. his unchecked rage. So your family did this to you?"

"My parents had nothing to do with it." Hood growled. "It was my fault, not my brother's. Perhaps he reacted in anger, but I brought it upon myself."

Hood flattened his ears, muttering darkly, "And on the day when all else failed me, a woodlander came to my aid."

Ublaz didn't reply to this, simply continued like he'd never heard. "This brother ... you must despise him."

The fox looked away. Ublaz nodded. "That's what I thought. Say what you like, you have not forgiven him."

"What do you want from me?" Hood muttered.

Ublaz smiled. "Cooperation, nothing else. Icetor is really the only kingdom in the way of my plans .. and you are my key in."

"How can I help you?" Hood kept his voice level. "I'm just a commoner."

"I admire your resolve." Ublaz chuckled. "But you don't fool me. You may have a will of iron, but I have one of diamond. You're a prince, and even if you are an outcast, you have power. Help me, and I will give you the revenge you desire."

Hood didn't meet his captor's gaze. Ublaz sighed. "Perhaps I should put it to you plainly ... the world is a dark place for our kind. Think of all the times a woodlander shunned you, cursed you, left you starving on the streets, spit on you, tried to take your life, just because of what you were? I will make an end of all that, I will unite the world like never before. A world for us, where we won't have to send our children to battle, we won't have to die raiding, none of that. There will be peace for all vermin."

"And how do you really intend to do that?" Hood snorted.

"Because there will only be vermin." Ublaz's pale eyes gleamed. "The age of woodlanders is over."

Hood jerked his head up, eyes widening. "That's ... genocide!"

"True ... but it's no less then what they want for us." Ublaz brushed this off casually.

"You can't!" Hood protested.

"Really?" Ublaz shrugged. "I have the world's most powerful weapons ready to serve my every whim, my fleet surpasses even Southsward, and I am no fool. Listen, I see it in your eyes, the sting of woodlander's cruelty, hatred for the one who scarred you. Your power of will is truly admirable. Join me, help me, and I will give you the chance you must of wanted for years ... you do want it."

"Yes." Hood sighed at length. "Yes, I want it. But how many would die? How many would suffer? Are my desires really worthy of the pain and blood of thousands? And then, I would give you the power to live forever, to be an eternal tyrant, snuffing out the individuality of nations and terrorizing generations. How many deaths would be on my head then? Forget it. I'm not worth that."

Ublaz actually scowled at this. "What talk is that?"

"Your Emperorness." Hood's eyes flashed. "It may surprise you to hear this. But the world does not revolve around you anymore then it does around me. In the eternal scheme of things, nobeast cares about what I think, and I am not worth the lives of millions!"

Ublaz said nothing for a moment, before he laughed. "Then you are a sad fool ... make them care. Make them listen. You may call me a villain, but I will give my kind freedom like never before. The hero is forced to shed blood to achieve the greater good."

Hood shook his head. "I will have no part of your lies or killing."

"Poor fool." Ublaz sighed. "And you have so much potential."

The pine marten shook his head. "It surprises me you don't do this to save your friends."

Hood looked up. "They're woodlanders. You don't plan on sparing them."

"Oh .. I might make an exception seeing the circumstances." Ublaz sneered.

"No you won't." Hood corrected. "You have no intention of it. Why would you? The longer you keep them, the longer you have to feed them, you risk them escaping, and I'm just one beast .. who honestly isn't that important to your plan. So I'm a shortcut for you. But what is that really worth? You're lying, plain and simple."

"What a stunning intellect! I could do great things with a mind so akin to my own." Ublaz smiled darkly.

Hood didn't blink. "That's why I won't give it to you. I would compromise everything I believe, and I would save nobeast ... in fact, more would die. So kill me, but I will not bow."

Ublaz shook his head. "That's truly a shame. I honestly dislike killing you, you are an admirable beast ... so I'll test something out .. a little legend I've heard of. The Flower's only weakness."

Hood's eyes slowly widened as Ublaz picked a pearl handled dagger from his desk. "Would you say your original injury was life threatening?"

The fox groaned as Ublaz came toward him. "If you will not kiss my ring, your hair is more valuable to me than you are. I'll give you one last chance."

Hood closed his eyes, a soft whimper escaping his lips. He didn't answer for a second, before whispering, "Ignasa forbid I should ever be such a traitor. Do your worst, but I refuse."

Ublaz sighed. "What a shame. Truly a waste of your talents. But I suppose learning about the Flowers firsthand is a consolation. Let's see what it takes to kill you, shall we?"

The pine marten laid the blade against Hood's shoulder, pausing one second before slashing into his flesh. Hood clenched his teeth as there a flow of blood, then a soft glow, and the open wound was reduced to a fading scar.

Ublaz walked around the chair Hood was confined to, before spinning around and thrusting the dagger into his ribs. The fox stiffened in pain, a yelp escaping him as he coughed up a little blood. Ublaz withdrew his weapon, and Hood slumped forward, gasping in air. He struggled for a few moments as blood soaked the fur on his side, before the glow radiated from that wound too, stopping the bleeding and reconnecting the torn flesh until only a scar remained.

"Fascinating." Ublaz smiled. "I see how Icetor's children are called the warriors who never die."

He picked up Hood's long black locks, slowly cutting the leather strip binding them together. "But is this truly to secret of your power?"

Hood whimpered quietly, clenching his teeth and breathing shallowly. Ublaz stretched the hair out, wiping the bloody dagger off on it for a moment. Then with one swift movement, he slashed the blade down, shearing the fox's hair off.

Hood screamed in agony, writhing in his bonds. The chair toppled over, and Ublaz took a step back as it fell sideways. Its delicate armrest smashed to bits on the floor, and Hood lay in the wreckage, gasping in air and wailing every time he exhaled.

The fox instinctively tried to curl up, but a spasm shook him, and he coughed blood, clenched teeth staining red. The wound disfiguring him started to reopen, oozing slowly.

"Kill me!" Hood screamed as his body twisted against the pain. "Have mercy and just kill me!"

His voice was choked out as more blood dribbled from his mouth. Ublaz did nothing, just watched in contemplative silence. The two ratguards had backed up to the doorway, Hood's shrieks obviously effecting both of them.

The glow tried to seep from the cut ends of his hair, but fizzled out. Hood cried out again as it disappeared, blood starting to drip from his chest, the side of his neck, and his face. Another spasm racked him as his hair tried to glow again, but again faded.

The fox gasped in pain as his wounds opened more. The fur around them glowed softly, before it flashed abruptly, ripping another scream from Hood. His wounds healed to their normal state, and he collapsed to the floor, his entire body going limp from trauma, every drop of strength torn away.

His dusky purple eyes dulled, then rolled back in his head and closed as he exhaled shakily. Slowly, ever so slowly, the glow appeared in his shorn hair, and it grew fractionally, before the light faded. Hood's breathing was weak and rasping as he lay broken on the floor in his own bloodstains, crimson staining the white fur around his mouth.

Ublaz glanced at the raven locks in his paw, and smiled.

><><

Romsca did her best to get comfortable, but even she wasn't used to sleeping on rocks. Besides, it wasn't the least bit dark out. Apparently, in the Vale of Dragons, day was night and vise versa.

Not that this was truly on the top of her list of frustrations right now, but it was slightly aggravating.

Apparently dragons had the indecency to really like sleeping on hard stone ... at least Shui seemed to be perfectly comfortable draped over a sort of bed made from just that. Romsca scowled and tucked her legs closer against her chest, wrapping her tail over her eyes and tried to ignore everything.

That was far easier said then done, as the two Monitors, Rocks and Drip, were also laying nearby. Romsca almost envied Sayna, who was sound asleep and really was blissfully ignorant of the situation, as she hadn't awoken after her fight with Lutran.

Not to mention, Shui, Rocks, Drip, and Jian had decided the vermin should be kept in their personal wing of the palace ... something that might have been considered an honor, but Romsca found it terrifying. After all, the royal children's abode was at least a good hundred feet off the cave floor.

Really the most frightening thing was the fact she was surrounded by lizards, and was completely weaponless. Sleep wasn't coming. She was tired yes, but sleep was impossible.

Soft steps echoed in her hearing, and Romsca looked up to see Arashi walk by. The younger ferret uncurled herself, asking, "What are you doing?"

Arashi started, before shrugging. "They simply told us not to leave this wing. I can't sleep."

Romsca slowly stretched. "Me neither. Not .. around .. them."

She shuddered the slightest bit, slowly standing up. Rocks yawned, blinking at the two. "What're you doing?"

"I just wanted to look around and stretch me legs. We furbeasts aren't used to sleeping in the day." Arashi stated.

"Yea .." Romsca stumbled around her words. "I'm with her. We ain't gonna leave yer wing a the palace or nothin'."

Rocks blinked, then stretched. "Oh do what you like, but be quiet. Zome of uz actually know when to zleep."

He closed his eyes, settling down again. Arashi walked down the marble staircase he was lying beside, into a hexagon room with pillars framing its outer edge, though only a decorative railing connected them, no walls. A pool sat in the middle of the area, which was huge, to be honest.

Arashi was silent, and Romsca felt awkward, like she should say something. "They .. don't seem too worried 'bout us ascapin'."

"Why would they?" Arashi shrugged. "There is no escape, we are fully at their mercy."

"I ... hate that." Romsca scowled. "I hate havin' ta trust anybeast. I ... I know I could never win, but I still wanna fight."

Arashi shook her head. "Ye can't slash your way out of this one."

"I know, an' I have ta hold it down ta protect alla ya. But Lutran wants me dead, an' he's gonna find some way a doin' it. Well if I go down, he goes down with me, I swear it!"

Arashi smiled, and Romsca looked confused. "What? I ain't jokin'."

"I know ... and I know it's serious. But I see Conva in your every move, and as much of a mess we are in, somehow it comforts me."

"Oh." Romsca looked away. "I ain't so much like him."

Arashi shook her head. "Your father was no saint, ye know. It seems to me ye elevate him too much, he wasn't perfect."

Romsca raised an eyebrow. Arashi smiled. "Why else would I love him? Yes, I loved him for him .. but I also loved his faults, because they made me seem a better beast. Selfish yes .. but true."

Arashi shrugged. "Still .. he was the best of us, I suppose."

Romsca ran a paw across her nose. "Yea."

She sat down by the pool as Arashi strolled silently around it, moving with grace Romsca only wished she possessed. As she watched the beast who was her mother, Romsca felt again she truly was the least of the Dragons. Conva had been noble and kind, Barranca was resilient and witty, Arashi was graceful and wise ... but she was just .. Romsca. The weak link in the chain .. the last link.

She stirred the water gently with a paw, staring at her rippling reflection. Arashi neared her again. "Romsca?"

The younger ferret looked up. Arashi continued. "To be honest, you're a lot like I hoped ya would be."

"Huh? I ain't special. I'm a walkin' disaster. Is that what ya really wanted fer a daughter?"

Arashi laughed a little. "Well, I could expect no less as I was your mother. But honestly, all the things ye have done in the short time I've known ye ... I couldn't be more proud."

Romsca frowned. "I couldn't save Xzaris's eyes ... I couldn't stop us bein' caught, an' I couldn't keep us safe. That's in less than three days time."

"I don't see it that way. True, we were captured by lizards, but ye did all ye could to save us from Ublaz. And as for Xzaris, ye gave your life for a friend and risked everything .. how is that not noble?"

"It wasn't enough." Romsca scowled. "What I can give ain't ever enough. It couldn't save dad, it couldn't spare my friends Ublaz's sick game, it couldn't give Durral and Sayna freedom, it couldn't save me crew, it couldn't save Xzaris's sight, an' it ain't gonna save us now."

Arashi shook her head. "Ye are just one beast. Ye can never have enough strength, enough wisdom, or enough love for everyone."

"I can't love." Romsca sighed. "I don't know why, but I can only be a distant pertecter .. I haven't felt love ... well .. for so long I've forgotten what it feels like. If I'm harsh an' cold ... it ain't always cause I wanna be. I'm just ... numb. Lost. Meeting Ignasa helped .. a lot, but somethin's still amiss. I donno what."

Arashi looked knowing. "Are ye afraid?"

"What?" Romsca protested. "No, I ain't afraid ... a nothin'."

She looked away. "Wull .. of a few things."

Arashi sighed. "We all are .. there is no shame in it."

"But I should be stronger." Romsca clenched her paws. "I have ta .. fer dad."

"Would it surprise ye to know your father was afraid too?"

"No." Romsca's voice was bitter. "I saw him afraid. An' he was afraid because a somethin' I did. So against all odds I must be strong, so that I may never cause those I care for that fear again."

Arashi said nothing for a moment, before asking, "Then why do ye say ye can't love?"

"Because I feel nothing." Romsca put her head in her paws. "Everythin' is wrong ... like .. ya fer example. Yer me mother ... I should feel love towards ya, but I don't ... I can't."

She sighed. "I'm sorry."

Arashi looked down. "I don't see that proves anything. Ye couldn't remember me .. the bonding we should have had was lost. I understand I gave ye up to help Conva ... I didn't know it then, but it's what happened. Not that I helped anybeast. I'm sorry ... I left ye. Maybe I shouldn't have."

"No ... if dad needed ya ... I understand. An' if ya'd been on the island when Ublaz took war ta the House a the Dragons ... ya both might be dead." Romsca smiled crookedly and halfheartedly. "I guess I always did sorta want a mother."

"Ye aren't good at smiling." Arashi remarked a little sadly.

Romsca shrugged. "I've fallen outa practice these last seasons. But it ain't that important. I guess I can thank ya fer not .. bein' dead?"

Arashi smiled a little. "Of course. And if ye want a mother again ... I'll always be glad to try, though I can't guarantee my advise would be that helpful."

Romsca shrugged. "You'll find I'm horrible at takin' advice ... but thanks. I hope .. we kin get to know each other better."

"Well, it looks like we'll have plenty of time to do that."

Romsca slowly pulled off her boots, massaging her feet and dipping them into the marble pool. She nodded in silence, but said nothing. Arashi slowly walked the perimeter of the room, staring down over the railing to the cave's floor.

Romsca stood, walking over to her mother with soggy feet. She looked out across the Vale of Dragons, it's multiple streams, crashing waterfalls, subterranean life, and wondrous but strange culture.

"Ublaz can't ever find this place." Arashi breathed.

Romsca looked across the cave, and she could see it burning before her eyes, the dragons lying contorted in death, the dwellings and streets painted red. She closed her eyes, shaking her head to clear it of the image as Arashi voiced her sentiments.

"They may be lizards .. and Ignasa knows I hate lizards ... but this is their sanctuary from the world. From us."

"But if ya think he'll leave this alone ..."

"Oh no, and this Lord Isan seems to see that too. I'm surprised he didn't see it sooner." Arashi stated.

Romsca leaned on a nearby pillar, shaking her head. "Why Ublaz hasn't struck sooner .. don't ask me."

><><

"Rom! Hey wake up!"

Romsca groaned, blinking up at Val. Sometime or other her weariness had got the best of her and she'd laid down for a catnap. "Unngg ... Val, it's dark out."

"Sure silly, that means it's mornin' here."

Romsca grumbled under her breath. Dragons. Lizards in general.

Xzaris was already sitting up, as was Durral. Barranca was curled up a defensive ball, trying to ignore reality. Sayna was still asleep, and Arashi wasn't in the immediate vicinity.

The lizard named Rocks bounded up the stairs, a thick stick in his teeth. He walked over to Xzaris, dropping it into his lap. "Here. I thought you could uze thiz."

The ferret ran his paws along the smooth, well polished wood, asking, "But I thought ya was gonna eat us."

"Well ... yea. Lutran'z juzt mad. But I don't like the thought of killing beaztz who've been our gueztz." The large dragon smiled in a friendly manner. "I know you're zcared of uz, but Drip and I made that for you. Cauze ... it'z like a gift. And anyway, you needed it."

Xzaris slowly stood, gripping the staff. "Uhh .. thanks. Really."

Rocks beamed, grinning from ear to ear ... almost literally, except for the fact he had no visible ears. Romsca felt Xzaris was actually lucky to have the benefit of not seeing those toothy, spine-chilling smiles.

Shui rolled off her bed, stretching and yawning widely. Again Romsca tried not to think about how wide their mouths were and how sharp their teeth were. The blue lizard blinked, before grinning. "Oh right, we have gueztz ... anyone what to take their bath before me? I think you all .. zort of need it."

Val raised a paw. "Me! I want one, and Romsca does too!"

"I'm fine ..."

"No ya ain't." Val grabbed the ferret's paw. "Ya smell like ya've been at sea fer two months."

Romsca rolled her eyes. "I have been at sea fer two months!"

"Me point exactly." Val looked victorious. "An' Xzaris ... I gotta say this, but ya look awful. Yer positively covered in blood .. dried that is, but still."

Xzaris tried to look down at himself, then sighed. "Oh."

Val grinned. "So yea ... with that said .. Shui, where's your washroom?"

The lizard pointed to the pool in the adjoining room. Romsca raised an eyebrow. "Not very private ..."

Shui sighed. "Yea, Lutran zaid the zame thing ... he got uzed to it pretty quickly."

"Ya know ..." Romsca frowned. "Like I said, I'm fine."

"Nope." Val pushed Romsca toward the stairs. "Yer takin' one. Ya should ta Xzaris."

Romsca glared at Val. "I ain't gonna bathe with him!"

"Oh come on, he's blind!"

"Ferget it, I'll bathe inna river. Some'a us got some decency."

Shui shook her head, laughing. "You furbeaztz are zo funny! Rockz, can you zhow the captain to the river?"

Rocks sighed. "I guezz, anything for the captain. Get on."

Romsca looked blank. "Get on what?"

"Me zilly, unlezz you want to walk the whole way." Rocks laughed, and Shui tittered.

Romsca swallowed hard. "Uhh ... I ain't ever ridden one a ya afor ... ain't I too heavy or somethin'?"

Rocks burst out laughing, before snorting. "Zeriouzly, iz it cauze you're zcared of me?"

Romsca rubbed her arm. "I'm sorry. A Monitor ... killed me. Wull ... he would have killed me ... if it weren't fer the Flowers. An' now I guess I'm sorta ... magical or somethin'. Anyway it ain't somethin' I kin ferget anytime soon. I know it weren't ya .. but .."

Val sighed. "Yer takin' a bath either way. Yer filthy."

"Oh fine, I'll use the pool ... jist don't watch." She looked slightly guilty. "Not ta hurt yer feelin's ... I'm just gettin' used ta lizards that ain't tryin' ta tear me limb from limb."

Rocks shrugged. "I can take that .. the feralz can be pretty terrifying .. at leazt to a furbeazt."

Shui snorted. "Oh come one, you're not that tough. You've been zcared of them."

"When I waz little." Rocks tossed his head. "That'z completely different. Practically like being a furbeazt."

Val dragged Romsca down the stairs. "Ya first, I'll git yer new clothes."

"New clothes?"

"Yea, I picked 'em out fer ya meself."

Romsca groaned, but complied out of lack of better options. "Great .."

She did feel better after a much needed bath, and the clothes Val had chosen to bring for her were ... tolerable. Not what Romsca would have chosen for herself, but not as skimpy as they might have been. The ferret decided to go along with it and be glad Val hadn't tried to dress her like a barmaid.

Xzaris looked much better clean, he was starting to look half alive again. Also he was dressed in some of Barranca's clothes, and while they were slightly too big for him, they were far nicer than anything he'd ever worn before.

By the time they were all clean again, the light had completely faded from the cavern, replaced by lanterns, torches, and even contained fires burning here and there on the ground to light roadways. Apparently the art of making fire was quite within the dragon’s capabilities, just like building intricate lofts high on a cliff side ... complete with indoor pools.

Romsca couldn’t help but think how disorienting it was that this was their day. But it was, it was obvious there were many more lizards up and about than when the small band had been brought before Lord Isan.

Shui trotted down the stairs leading from her room ... or more accurately, her gazebo, down into the pillared room hosting the pool. She had a harness of leather buckled around her neck, with two long knives sheathed in it, one over each shoulder.

So apparently they could work metal too ... and leather. Romsca felt like she knew very little about the world. Shui looked around at the furred creatures, asking, “Zo, we will take two of you a night, until you all pazz my father’z ztanderdz. Who’z coming tonight?”

Barranca raised an eyebrow. “So this is a test of our loyalty?”

“Yez.” Shui nodded. “If you pazz hiz teztz, we will make you dragonz like uz. If you fail ... I think you know the cozt of that.”

Barranca scowled. “Well I’ve got a hard sentence to work off, I might as well get started.”

There was silence for a moment, before Arashi and Romsca spoke up at the same time.

“I’ll do it.”

“I’ll go.”

Arashi nodded. “Sorry, ye go tonight. I can wait.”

Romsca shrugged. “Ok, I guess I’m in on this.”

“I don’t know that iz zuch a good idea. Lutran dizlikez you both, and he’z coming with uz.” Shui frowned.

Barranca backed up. “Never mind. I’d go to Hellgates rather than spend a day with that otter. I think it would be preferable.”

“I hate him just as much.” Romsca protested.

Barranca scowled. “Look, I’ve had about enough. If I have to spend twelve hours with that otter I’m going to lose what little sanity I have left!”

“Fine.” Romsca groused. “But he’s gonna stick a knife in me back while the others ain’t lookin’.”

“Oh no he won’t, he’ll be in big trouble with dad if he doez.” Shui remarked. “He knowz the law. But if the freckly ztoat izn’t coming, who iz?”

She looked at the others, missing the glare Barranca gave her. Shilo shivered, stammering, “I ... I’ll go ... if it means you won’t e .. eat me.”

Shui grinned. “Ok, great! The rest of you zhould ztay here. Drip will ztay with you, and zome guardz. Juzt don’t leave our wing, becauze father ztill haz to make an anounzment about you.”

She nodded to Romsca and Shilo. “Follow me.”

The two looked at each other for a split second, before Shilo ducked his head and hurried past her without a word. Romsca sighed, before following, subtly wondering if she would ever see this place or her friends again.

Shui led them out of the pool room and down a very exposed ramp, featuring no rails and a hundred foot drop on each side. Romsca felt dizzy, she’d never liked unfurling sails, and that was nothing compared to this.

Shilo didn’t seem as nervous, in fact he crossed it relatively easily. Romsca bit her lip and focused on Shui, waiting expectantly in the next room, really nothing more than a platform.

“Why .... do ya not have walls .. or at least rails?” Romsca couldn’t help asking, as she desperately tried not to focus on the drop into black oblivion.

“Oh, we didn’t build the palaze.” Shui supplied cheerfully. “Well, we’re alwayz adding to it. But mozt was here long before father or hiz father hatched.”

Shilo timidly stammered, “Wh ... who did build it .. th .. then?”

Shui smiled. “The palaze iz an artifact of our hiztory ... it iz our hiztory. Different wingz come from different agez .. we maintain and care for every pieze of it. What we are in now iz the work of the ancient Linzhi, the oldezt wing. Father gave it to uz to live in and care for.”

She added. “It waz made with no railz becauze flying dragonz built it, and we make no chagez to the eraz.”

“Y .. you mean some of you ... c ... can fly?” Shilo looked around nervously.

“No, not anymore.” Shui sighed. “The Linzhi az a tribe are dead .. thoze like my father and Jian are all that’z left.”

Romsca was confused. “I thought ya said ya was called Zhanshi?”

Shui snickered a little as she walked along. “Yea, we are. You zee, there are ... well .. there were many branchez of the four typez of dragonz.”

“Four types of dragons?” Romsca felt like she needed to go back to bed.

“Yez.” Shui was amused at her guests lack of understanding. “There were the zky dragonz, the Linzhi. There were the Neishi, the land dragonz. Alzo the Jiang, the fire dragonz. Then there were Zhui, the water dragonz.”

She looked proud. “I’m named after them, like my brother iz named for fire. And there were many types of dragonz among the tribez. Thiz palaze waz built in part by each tribe, each type within that tribe giving their additional ideaz. It uzed to be the zenter of a thriving culture.”

Her head drooped as she walked, her back scales flattening completely. “But that culture died long before my father’z long dead fatherz hatched.”

Romsca felt just another guilty weight settle in her stomach. “We did this ta ya. I see that now.”

Shui cocked her head at the ferret oddly, before laughing. “No, no, zilly furbeazt! You had nothing to do with that.”

“I meant me people.” Romsca corrected.

“No.” Shui insisted. “Your kind had never zet foot on the islandz.”

“I ... Islands?” Shilo asked a little stupidly.

Shui giggled in her odd reptilian way. “Furbeaztz! Zo zilly ... zo zmall and fuzzy and cute!”

Romsca stared at Shui in dull incomprehension, feeling a little degraded by being called small, fuzzy, and cute in the same sentence. And the worst thing was, she had no way of arguing with a seven-foot-long beast with armor for skin and knives for teeth.

Shui sobered, stating, “No. Dragonz are not like furbeaztz, we keep hiztory alive with uz. The recordz zay Zampetra waz onze surrounded by other izlandz, until they zank into the zea with great zhaking and wavez that covered mountainz. There had been thouzandz of uz, and even with thoze that died, there were too many for juzt one island. They ... turned on one another.”

The blue lizard flattened her ears. “They fought warz zimply to eat the dead from the battlefield. Whole tribez were deztroyed. The Neishi zurvived by brute strength, but many alzo developed a tazte for blood .. lizard blood. Zlowly they became zo viziouz and debaze .. they lozt their ability to zpeak and became the feralz. Zome from the other tribez did too .. but Neishi are truly the ztrongezt of all tribez, and they preyed on the otherz zo they died out over zeasonz. Zome who did not fall zo low fled to other places in the world, but only Linzhi and Zhui could do that. The rest took refuge here and made the great gatez to zeal the rezt of the world out, zo our people would survive and build a new empire.”

Romsca and Shilo were speechless. Shui smiled again. “Zo we did. The tribez intermarried, and the Zhanshi came to be. We are all three tribes, Shui, Linzhi, and Jiang, combined.”

“That’s ... possible?” Romsca stammered. She understood two or even three species reproducing ... her own family had a rich history of it ... but to create a new kind of creature? That had never been heard of.

Shui shrugged. “Well .. for the Linzhi and Jiang, there are none left that are pure. Zee ... father and Jian look more like Linzhi, but I look like a water dragon. Zo I guezz we aren’t zo much a new tribe az the broken leftoverz of the old onez. But you zee, you really had nothing to do with our downfall. If anything, you helped.”

“That’d be a first ... wait, what?” Romsca raised an eyebrow. “We’ve done nothin’ but hurt everybeast.”

“Zome could zay that. But the recordz zay that when you first came, you taught uz great thingz. Furbeaztz zhowed uz how to make fire even without the Jiang. They taught uz to bend metal to our will, how to write wordz, and how to weave cloth. Onze, they zay, we were friendz. But then darknezz grew in the furbeaztz heartz, juzt like it had in the feralz. Zo we clozed the gatez again, to protect ourzelvez lezt you alzo go mad and desire our blood. Zomehow, you zilly furbeaztz forgot. Zometimez I think furbeaztz forget becauze they do not want to remember.”

Romsca paused, before nodding. “Sometimes I think yer right.”

So the history of Holt Lutra wasn’t as far off as she had thought. Why didn’t vermin keep records too? Or did they ... was there some part of Sampetrain history that matched this? And Romsca realized again, the past wasn’t something she had ever been taught in detail; likely nobeast knew it.

If only they knew this. Wouldn’t it at least make a small difference?

They had descended many levels of the palace by now, and Shui stopped in a doorway. This area had polished wooden screens taking the place of walls, and was a lot closer to the ground. Romsca relaxed a little, tensing again when they walked into the room, as Lutran was there, as well as quite a few lizards.

Jian was there, but aside from Lord Isan, he was the only one Romsca recognized. Shilo scooted a little behind her. Lutran scowled darkly in their direction, and Romsca fought the urge to return the look ... something that was taxing.

Lord Isan cocked his head in Shui’s direction. “What took zo long?”

“You know.” Shui shrugged. “They are zlow like Lutran uzed to be.”

Lutran didn’t reply to that, but Romsca couldn’t imagine he liked it. Isan rolled his eyes. “Oh yez, I remember. Anyway, az we were. You will take theze two on the raid tonight. If they prove their loyalty to the dragonz now, and ztay true to it, I will pardon them.”

Several of the lizards looked at each other dubiously, but they nodded. Shilo tapped Romsca’s paw, whispering, “Raid?”

Romsca shrugged, though she was starting to get some very unpleasant ideas about what they would have to do. She took a deep breath, asking, “Do we ... get our weapons back?”

“Lutran, give them what they’ll need.” Isan ordered.

The otter sneered, walking over and shoving a bow and quiver of arrows into Romsca’s paws, before doing the same thing to Shilo. Romsca slowly closed her paw over the weapon as Shilo stammered fearfully, “Wh .. what .. are you going to make us d .. do?”

Lord Isan shrugged. “If you zide with uz, you zide againzt the rezt of the furbeaztz. You will kill the guardz on the wall to prove it.”

Shilo’s lip trembled, and Romsca felt a little sick.

They’re just ratguards ... they’re Ublaz’s ratguards ...

But they were there long before him. The ratguard was the people’s protection from the Wilds, they gave their lives to defend their fellow beasts, they weren’t even raiders. It wasn’t like they even went around trying to kill defenseless .. or otherwise .. woodlanders. There were bad ones, true, but what about those like Shilo?

“Milord .... I mean no treachery or anythin’. But Shilo is a ratguard ... ain’t there somethin’ else he can prove himself doin’?” Romsca honestly felt like she needed to make it up to the timid rat after making him believe she was a ghost.

Lutran looked not a little smug. “Actually, I think it’s the perfect test for him, and you.”

Isan nodded firmly. “Unlezz you turn againzt the other furbeaztz, you cannot be truzted. Will you do thiz?”

Romsca knew all too well the result refusing would bring. She gave in. “We ... we will.”

I have to. I have no choice ... Ignasa, what are you doing? I want to say no ... but ..

She felt Lask’s rancid breath blast against the back of her neck, the feeling of the searing pain his claws had inflicted burned forever in her memory.

Once was enough, she couldn’t live through that again ... she couldn’t even die like that again! It was selfish, but a few ratguards were not worth that to her. Ratguards that enforced Ublaz’s laws. “I will do it.”

Shilo whimpered, but he nodded miserably.

Isan looked at Lutran. “Go. And unlezz they zhow true treachery ... which all thoze in your party can agree on ... I expect them back in one pieze. Iz that underztood?”

Lutran bowed. “Yes father.”



Chapter 28 Raids and Rescues

TotO &#039;Madeyes&#039; Prisoner&#039;

Grath in the dungeons

The journey out of the Vale of Dragons was made in silence. Romsca and Shilo were assigned horses, and their two mounts weren’t over-excited about carrying them.

Lutran was mounted too, and the five dragons who were with them had no trouble keeping up. Romsca found it hard to ride a horse without reins or a saddle, all she could hold on with was her legs. Not that she couldn’t, but the pearl-gray mare she was riding kept pinning her ears aggressively when she clenched her knees too hard.

The ferret scowled, gripping the mare’s worn leather harness that held several knives, as well as some vials of unrecognizable liquid and sported some small drawstring bags. The horse nickered darkly. “Don’t pull so tight.”

“How else do I stay on?” Romsca protested.

“I don’t know.” The mare obviously couldn’t care less. “Be glad I don’t throw you and trample your sorry skull into a pulp. I’m not used to carrying furbeasts. I didn’t ask for this job.”

Romsca fell into a dark silence, pinning her own ears. Summer might be old, but at least he didn’t talk back.

Shilo was having the same problem, and to make it worse, it seemed like he’d ridden less. His mount gave the gray mare a glance. “Stupid furbeasts.”

She tossed her head. “They can’t even ride. Idiots, since when were we ok with them?”

Romsca felt the sudden desire for her riding crop, but was also glad the option wasn’t available. Part of her fumed at the way they treated her, but the rest of her realized she deserved it. And it was good they were spiteful. Really, it didn’t hurt as much as she would have liked it to .. Romsca had conditioned herself to harsh words, and now she wished they stung more.

Honestly, Shui’s quick forgiveness felt wrong.

They were in the bamboo forest again, though they hadn’t passed the ruined town. Silence prevailed, even the Neishi and horses were quiet, even though it wasn’t something Romsca associated with the two species.

Jian was ahead of the rest, and he suddenly stopped. He lifted his head, back scales lifting as he curled his lip. “I zmell furbeaztz.”

Shui bounded to her brother’s side, sniffing the air. She narrowed her eyes. “I do too ... they were here. They muzt have been wet ... furbeazt ztink lotz more when they’re wet.”

One the Neishi growled. “Well we need to find them. Furbeaztz can’t juzt ztart wandering the island.”

Lutran scowled, glowering at Romsca. “More of your friends, ferret?”

Romsca sneered. “It ain’t possible. All the beasts I consider friends left the city with me.”

“Is your emperor after you?” The otter pinned his small ears. “If he finds the Vale of the Dragons because you're there ..”

“I swear I don’t know!” Romsca growled, fangs glimmering. “Word on the streets was I’d gone down at sea, so I doubt it.”

Jian made a face. “Lutran, get to the point. Ztop fighting her and come on, we need to find them.”

The lizard scurried deeper into the bamboo, Shui shooting Lutran a disapproving glance as she followed. The otter frowned, before nodding to the others. “Come on, change of plans.”

Jian ran along the ground in his strange, weaving gait, inhaling every few seconds to make sure he was following the trail. With the sense of smell the dragons had, Romsca realized running from them was positively futile.

The silence allowed sound to carry far through the forest, and Shilo’s horse suddenly stopped, flicking his ears. “I hear something.”

There was a quiet thudding and scraping as they came to a stop, all listening closely. Sure enough, Romsca realized she could hear it too, a faint echo that rose, faded for a little, then rose again. Almost like somebeast yelling. But who would be idiotic enough to yell in the Wilds?

The dragons started forward again, and the horses followed them. As they drew closer, Romsca could make out voices, several of them. She almost pitied the poor fools, whoever they were.

Shui scurried across a boulder, stopping momentarily on the far side. “Zay ... it zoundz like they’re calling for zomebeast.”

“Well they won’t find them.” Lutran patted the mane of the chestnut he was riding absently. “Let’s take them down.”

Jian dashed forward, hissing, “I’ll zee how many there are!”

He scurried up a thick bamboo stalk, unfolding his short, leathery wings before launching into the air. For one second, Romsca honestly expected him to fly, but it wasn’t what happened. What did was almost as frightening. Jian landed on another bamboo stalk, leaping to the next, his short wings providing balance and helping him momentarily catch air. He vanished from sight in a matter of seconds.

Shilo swallowed hard. “H .. h .. he sure is f .. fast!”

“Oh zure.” Shui sounded proud of her brother. “He’z one of the bezt.”

The group fell silent, and it was less than five minutes before Jian came bounding back, landing on a rock, wings erect. He folded them, announcing, “It’z juzt two furbeaztz, and they’re looking for you.”

Romsca was uncomprehending. “Me?”

“Yez, you.” Jian looked a little suspicious. “Are you zure you don’t have friendz in the zity?”

“I don’t .. I donno who they is.” She fell silent as a nasty thought came to her ... Kage and Merith. But Surely they weren’t dumb enough to wander into the Wilds. Unless ... they had no choice.

Lutran glared at her. “I’m putting up with you, and now I have to deal with more vermin? I refuse to tolerate this!”

Romsca snarled, “Look, I don’t got a clue who could be out here.”

She did, yes, but she had no intention of saying so.

Lutran curled his lip. “We’ll see. Take us there Jian.”

The dragon nodded, trotting off in the direction he’d come from. Romsca was silent, mentally praying it was not Kage and Merith. She didn’t know what she’d do if it was. Should she protect them? Lutran wouldn’t stand for it, his tolerance ... what little he had ... was about to snap anyway.

It wasn’t like either was her friend, she owed Merith no favors, and as Kage’s service as a member of her crew had been paid, he wasn’t her responsibility. Yet even still ... all she could do was hope it wasn’t them. And it couldn’t be. Why would they leave? Unless of course, they got in trouble for their connection to her, and as impossible as it seemed, Romsca knew it wasn’t.

Her mount stopped, and the others had too. They were near the source of the voices now, and to Romsca’s relief, they were neither Kage’s or Merith’s. The disturbing thing was, while she could swear she’d never heard them, they seemed to know her name.

The group was silent, listening.

“Captain Romsca? Your abbotness? Sayna? I say, chaps and chapesses, don’t be like that, come out, wot?”

Another voice joined the first, tired and plaintive. “Father Abbot! Sayna? Oh Clecky, it’s just no use .. Whatever’s supposed to be out here must have eaten them ... and now it’s our turn. I wish I’d never left Redwall!”

Lutran frowned, partly in confusion, before looking at Romsca. “Well, go see what they want.”

“I don’t know who those beasts is!”

“Apparently they know you, since they’re looking for you. So go find out what they want. If they mean treachery, I expect you to kill them.” Lutran glared her down.

Romsca scowled, sliding off her mount, who twitched the skin along her shoulders and back like she’d gotten rid of a leech. Shui nodded. “We’ll be watching; zo do what you’re zuppozed to.”

The ferret slowly started forward, wishing she had more than a bow and arrows. While she could use them if needed, long range weapons had never been her specialty.

The bamboo was towering, each stalk was as good as a tree trunk, and their roots made ridges across the ground. Romsca caught sight of the two intruders, ducking out of sight as soon as she did, observing them.

One was a lanky creature, soft brown with darker brown points, and a captain’s hat and coat. Somehow, he seemed familiar ... maybe because the outfit he sported reminded her greatly of the painting depicting her great grandfather that always hung in the foyer of her manor.

The other was a small, scruffy brown creature who looked dirty and damp, it's once nice clothes a mess.

The lanky creature scowled. "Oh blast it ... this captian Romsca could be anywhere. An' besides, are we really trustin' the word of a barmaid?"

He was a rabbit, Romsca could tell by his accent. They were approaching her hiding place now, and she slipped out in front of them, saying nothing.

The two came to an instant stop, the tall creature standing defensively in front of the small one. "I say now ..."

He glared at her. "You! You stole his Abbotship, you rotter!"

Romsca opened her mouth to reply, but the rabbit jumped at her, fists at the ready. "Where is he? And where's Sayna! And where's the decent captain who bothered to help them, Romsca ... fess up real quick you dirty vermin!"

He took a shot at her jaw, which Romsca quickly dodged, grabbing his arm with a fist of iron. The two struggled for a moment, before the ferret scowled, "Enough, yer lookin' fer me. I'm capt'n Romsca!"

He yanked his paw away, gaping, "You? But you started all the trouble in the first place!"

"I know." Romsca looked down for a second. "An' that's why it's my job ta set it right again."

There was silence for a moment, before Romsca's eyes darkened, and she snapped, "But what is ya doin' here? Yer here fer yer Abbotmouse?"

The small, scruffy female nodded nervously. "That's right."

"How did ya cross the sea? Just the two of ya alone wouldn't have a chance, the winds ain't been that favorable."

"We had help .." The female protested, but the rabbit stopped her.

"Don't tell her anything yet, we can't trust the wench!"

"But Clecky, we trusted the other one at the bar." His companion protested.

The rabbit frowned. "Well yes me'gel, but we didn't have a choice about it."

Romsca sighed. "I'm 'fraid ya don't have a choice now either. I ain't the most trustworthy beast around, but cause yer woodlanders ... I guessin' ya is anyway .. I might be able ta help ya. Where is the rest of yer group? Did they get lost out here?"

The young maiden's brown eyes slowly filled with tears. "N .. No ... they were captured by somebeast in that big city called Emperor Ublaz!"

"What?" Romsca looked upset. "Why in world would ya go anywhere near that city if'n ya was woodlanders?"

"Well .. we thought we'd blend in .. hide under the enemy's nose in disguise and what not."

Romsca was still for a moment, before she muttered, "An' ya went there cause a what I did?"

Clecky nodded. "Yea ... good job an' thanks a heap, wot."

"Ya fools." Romsca's voice was a shaky sound. "I'm a vermin, an' even I wouldn't attempt that! Why else would I put my life in the claws a flesh-eatin' lizards? Was it mad bravery or just bone-headed ignorance? Ya sailed inta the bay? Tell me ya didn't!"

The maid nodded nearvously. "Well ... yes we did .."

"Dressed as pirates? Woodlanders! An' I'll say it again, woodlanders! But none a that matters now. Yer mates was captured by Ublaz? Then ya got a matter a three days ta save 'em .. nay, two, they're woodlanders."

The little maid shivered. "What's going .. to happen to them?"

Romsca met the creature's wet brown eyes, and she sighed. "Ya don't wanna know that."

Clecky scowled. "We hoped Sayna could help us."

Romsca shook her head. "She's in no condition ta be fightin' nothin', an' won't be fer a good several weeks. But since my idiocy brought ya here, I'll do what I can ta help get ya outa it, though I fear it won't save alla 'em."

She suddenly paused, asking, "Tell me ya brought no otters?"

Clecky and his young companion exchanged a glance, and Romsca looked dismayed. "Ya did? How many!"

"Uhh .. two captain." Clecky looked confused.

"Two! Ya brought two otters inta the city, an' they got captured? They're dead, or they wish they was, I promise ya that." Romsca shook her head, visions of the Lutrian otters haunting her.

"But why otters in particular?" The maiden asked, alarmed. "What's the difference?"

Romsca groaned. "The emperor despises all otters! He takes delight outa torturin' 'em ta death ... I can't believe .."

She put her head in her paws. "An' it's my fault! I swear Ublaz ... I swear .. Look. How many beasts did ya bring, total?"

"Seven, aside from us." Clecky looked grave. "You better be serious vermin."

"I swear by Hellgates rabbit. Seven. That's not gonna be easy. Yer all from that red castle?" Romsca asked.

Clecky shook his head. "Not all ... Inbar's from Holt Rudderwake, my good friend Hood and myself are from Icetor, the shrew twins are from the Guosim, and I guess that girl Grath is from Redwall, though I pick up she was from some holt that got destroyed."

Romsca's ears perked forward, and her jawline hardened. "What?"

"Grath." The maiden spoke. "She's a good friend of mine ... she came to live at Redwall some nine seasons ago after pirates killed her holt."

The ferret turned on Clecky. "Tell me the name!"

He held up his paws. "What does it matter, you rotters destroyed them. They aren't a holt anymore thanks to you."

Romsca grabbed the hare's coat. "Holt Lutra? Is it Holt Lutra?"

"Yea, I think so ..."

"Her? A red-fured blonde haired ottermaid! Is this who ya speak of?" Romsca's paw clenched into Clecky's coat, her razor claws tearing it.

The little maiden backed away. "Y .. yes .. how do you know her?"

Romsca turned glowing green eyes on Clecky, before hurling him to the ground. "She is dead thanks ta ya! An' she died in unspeakable agony!"

The hare crawled backwards on his elbows, catapulting himself back onto his paws and adopting a battle-ready stance. But Romsca didn't attack again, just stood there, black and silver bangs covering her eyes. "No. She is dead thanks ta me."

Romsca wished she could cry. But she'd made herself forget long ago. And the tightness in her chest almost felt ... right. At very least, it felt just.

She didn't even move as Lutran stalked out of the bamboo and faced her, eyes burning. His voice was guttural as he ground out the words. "That's right. I heard it all. And it's all your fault vermin. Yet I cannot kill you. So I'll have to be content with this!"

Romsca remained still as his fist connected with her jaw, sending her flying back with a cracking sound. She hit the ground hard, smashing into a stalk of bamboo. She tried to enjoy the stinging hurt flowing up her jaw, but it was only momentary as it vanished with a tingle. Even pain was denied to her.

The ferret slowly got to her feet, saying nothing as Shui bounded between Lutran and his foe. "Enough! Thiz izn't how we act Lutran, ztop it, pleaze!"

He growled, looking away, as there was a scream from the Redwall maiden. She scrambled away from Shui, dashing behind Clecky, who looked visibly shaken. "Those things? Keep behind me Tansy!"

The rest of the group walked into the open, and the two woodlanders gaped at the motely crew of dragons. Clecky clenched his paws into fists, yelling, "Don't come any closer, or I'll have to give you blighters what for!"

Sadly, his voice shook a little. Jian looked insulted. "With your bare pawz?"

Clecky stared at him as Shui giggled. "I like him, he'z zilly and cute!"

"Gahhaaa ...." The hare was for once at a lack for words. "The chaps can talk?"

"Well not the feralz." Shui laughed, "But we've alwayz talked!"

Lutran scowled. "Too much! We've got a serious problem on our paws!"

He grabbed Clecky by the coat, glaring him down. "Is Grath .. my sister .. really captive in the city, rabbit?"

"Yes, and I'm not a rabbit chap, I'ma hare ..."

"I don't give a bloody care about your species!" Lutran's voice was a roar. "I care about saving Grath's life! So get over it rabbit!"

Clecky scowled. "For a woodlander, you sure act like a vermin, wot? Grabbin' beast's shirts an' insultin' 'em."

A deadly hush fell over the bamboo forest. Even Shui and Jian looked appalled, and the former gasped, "Lutran, pleaze don't do zomething you'll regret!"

The brawny otter lifted the far lankier hare's feet off the ground, and Clecky gulped, realizing his error too late. "Uh ... chap ... what I meant to say .."

Lutran smacked him hard across the face, slamming him to the ground the next second. "Only because you are somehow a friend of Grath's, I'll spare your life. Watch your insolent tongue."

The otter swung up on the chestnut stallion's back, snarling, "Now I'm going on ahead. You go back and make a search party. I'll be waiting in the wall's shadow."

His mount raised an eyebrow. "Wait ... is that really a good idea?"

The chestnut got a good look at Lutran's face, and sighed. "I guess there's no stopping you. The rest of you, hurry!"

He galloped off into the woods, and Shui looked at Clecky, who was just getting up. "You know, I hope you have a plan. Lutran will get into trouble on hiz own."

Romsca spoke for the first time since she'd discovered Grath's presence. "I might."

><><

Lord Isan was understandably displeased, but he was taking it better than Romsca had anticipated. Honestly, she admired the dragon lord's level head and sense of justice.

"A rezcue ... and Lutran dezirez thiz?"

Shui nodded. "It'z hiz zizter ... hiz otter zizter of courze. Anyway, Romzca zaid she had a plan!"

"I didn't say it was great!" The ferret looked alarmed. "It's jist the only thing I can think up right now."

Isan looked grave. "That may be the bezt any of uz can do. Please elaborate."

Romsca stood up straight, stating, "I know a way inta the dungeons, Shilo showed it ta me. But he's a traitor ta the ratguard, an' I don't wanna put him in that kinda danger. I'll need Val, my uncle, my mother, and Xzaris to make this work."

She paused. "An' honestly ... this plan'll need a lot of help from yer people too."

Isan was silent for a moment, pondering this. Drip had been standing by the dragon lord, and now he frowned. "Not to throw water on the fire, but zhe hazn't proven herself, and the otherz haven't either."

"Our brother'z out there." Rocks countered. "And he'z the kind of idiot who'd charge in that zity zingle pawed. The furbeazt'z were raized in the zity, they can help!"

Shui nodded. "I zay we truzt them!"

"Yea, Lutran will need uz to zave hiz tail, father." Jian added.

Isan stamped a claw down. "Enough, I've dezided. Furbeazt!"

Romsca met his gaze, a shiver running down her spine. "Yes sir?"

"I will hear thiz plan of yourz. I will chooze bazed on that, and if you can zave my zon'z true family and all those azzoziated with her, you will have done a favor for the dragonz. If you zhow loyalty in thiz, I will zpare you and your freindz. But zhould you play uz falze, all the furbeaztz will die. Doez that zuit you?"

Clecky frowned. "Wait, all of us? All our lives are on what she does?"

"Unlezz Lutran zpeakz for you, yez." Isan nodded.

"Beggin' your pardon sire, but I don't want to trust her all that much!"

Isan gave the hare a look. "I didn't azk you. I azked her. Will you agree to this?"

Romsca took a deep breath, before nodding. "Aye. I ain't gonna turn traitor."

The dragon nodded. "Then it iz dezided. Jian, make a rezcue party immediately."

Clecky glared at Romsca, jabbing an accusing claw at her. "You better make good on this deal, wot?"

Romsca met his gaze evenly. "I intend too."

><><

Grath was curled in the corner of her cell, staring at nothing, and trying to think about nothing. The latter was far harder to do than the former.

She wasn't crying anymore, she'd done that already, and she didn't have it in her to continue. Somewhere down the hall, she could here what sounded like an ongoing argument between Cracklyn and the shrew brothers, but she couldn't make out any details.

Every few minutes, the thud of boots and soft jingle of metal armor announced the presence of the two guards pacing the hallway. Once in a while, one would put a few choice words into the three woodlander's argument, and the dungeon would go silent for a while.

There was a sudden creaking of a door at the far end of the hall, and the arguing of guards. "I can't drag 'im any more! He's heavy!"

The voice that spoke first was female, an a male answered her. "Well then why are ya on the ratguard? Come on, toughen up."

"Ya think you're so smart? Why don't ya try it awhile!"

"Cause I'm holdin' the door for ya, an' ladies first."

The female snarled at her companion. "Ya louse, just open one a the cells."

Grath looked up silently as the guard unlocked the cell next to hers, pulling the door open. "Stick him in here."

His companion dropped her load, a white chested, black fox that looked like he'd seen better days. Grath stiffened as she realized it was Hood. "Ya stick him in there, cause I ain't .. Hey!"

The female heralded the two guards on duty. "Ya two, put this prisoner in here!"

They scowled, but complied begrudgingly, dragging Hood carelessly into the cell and dropping him unceremoniously. The first guard slammed the door shut, locking it again, before Hood's escorts took their leave, exiting the door they'd come in.

The two original guards gave each other a glance of mutual distaste, before resuming their rounds.

Grath slowly sat up, staring across her cell and into Hood's at the crumpled black form. What had Ublaz done to him?

She slowly crawled to the bars separating them, whispering, "Hood?"

He didn't answer or move, the only comfort Grath had was that his chest rose and fell evenly. She reached a paw through the bars, trying to touch him, but he was too far away. Grath slowly returned her paws to the thick bars, tears returning to her eyes as she whimpered a little. "This was my stupid plan ... I'm sorry Hood!"

His white fur was mottled with dark red, like his scars had reopened, and his mouth was stained with the same color. Grath didn't want to know how much blood his black coat was hiding. She hung onto the bars and wept softly, not moving when the guard walked past.

His footsteps faded before Hood stirred, muttering, "Don't cry."

Grath blinked her eyes open to see the fox's violet eyes were watching her, though dully. "You're ok?"

"Not exactly." Hood's voice was raspy. "But I might live."

"What do you mean? What did that demented monster do to you?" Grath's whisper was upset.

The fox weakly raised a paw to the back of his head, and Grath suddenly realized his long black headfur was missing.

"He cut my hair." Hood murmured. "I'm surprised I survived at all."

Grath gaped. "Your hair? How could cutting it do that to you? It looks like he cut ... your old wounds open again."

Hood turned his head to meet her gaze. "They were never properly healed, they were just patched with the Flowers of Icetor. Clecky's not a great healer, but he is a great friend. He did what he could."

There was silence, and the fox groaned. "And now that freak has my hair."

Grath shook her head. "Don't we have more important things to worry about?"

"You don't understand, it's blessed by the Flowers and will cure any injuries he receives. That hair made me almost immortal ... I'm really getting a full dose of pain now, and I'm not sure time will cure it."

"What can I do to help you?" Grath pressed her face against the bars. "I know a little healing!"

Hood winced. "I don't know, that's what I'm saying. Maybe rest will put me on my feet, and maybe I'm doomed to a slow death of agony. Either way, I'll never be the same."

He rested his paw on the scar across his torso. "I'm sorry I can't get you out of here."

The fox closed his eyes with a sigh. "What I'd give for a little water."

Grath closed her eyes, hating her incompetence and frailty. She could do nothing, just like always. "I .. I don't have any."

Her voice was a sniffle, and her tears started again. Hood's voice was weak, but determined. "Don't cry, I don't like it. It makes me feel like I should do something, but I'm helpless."

"I'm sorry ... I can't help it!" Grath slowly let herself crumple to the straw floor. "We're all going to die!"

Hood opened his eyes a crack. "Stop it. You're wasting your energy, and mine on top of it."

He flicked his tail close to the bars, muttering, "I wouldn't be an assassin if I couldn't smuggle a weapon past a pack of rats. There's a dagger hidden in the fur, unstrap it and use it when the opportunity comes."

Grath reached through the bars, her paw sinking into the fox's soft tail fur until she found the small dagger's hilt. She drew it from the straps holding it there carefully, and Hood nodded to her. "It's all I can do. Make it enough."

She wiped her tears with her free paw, nodding. "I'll try."

"You will." Hood smiled the tiniest bit. "You have more strength than you know."

He sighed, relaxing and closing his eyes. "Now let me sleep."

Grath closed her paw around the short blade, feeling a little security in the midst of the hopelessness. She didn't move as the minutes dragged by, watching Hood in silence.

As battered as he was, she couldn't imagine him dying. She couldn't imagine any of her friends dying. But the nasty thought they all would wouldn't leave her be.

She looked down at the blade in her paw, before tucking it into her belt. The otter drew her knees to her chest, wrapping a paw around them as she stared hostilely at the hall outside. She would do something before she died.

Something.

><><

"We're not traveling to the zity on foot, that takez too long." Jian was matter of fact.

Xzaris, hurrying along as best he could, broke in. "Fergive me .. but how do ya plan ta get there in that case?"

He tripped, and Romsca grabbed his arm. Shui steadied him on the other side, asking, "How do you plan to help when you can't ztand up?"

Xzaris sighed, before grumbling in Romsca's general direction. "Good question Rom, what am I doin' here?"

"Trust me."

"Ya don't have a great track record there." Xzaris sighed. "But I guess I'll give ya the benefit a the doubt."

They had left the main cave as soon as Isan could assemble a group. Rocks had insisted on coming, and Jian had rolled his eyes, grumbling something about having to drag him all the way there.

Arashi, Barranca, and Val had their weapons back, and so did Romsca .. Xzaris was the only one that didn't, since Ublaz had confiscated his pike. Shui had found a couple dragon knives for him, fairly long, thick blades with curving handles.

Clecky had opted to come along with them, leaving Tansy with Drip, who promised to take her to the abbot. The hare was sullen however, and didn't say anything.

The cavern they hurried through now was a rather narrow one, though the ceiling vanished into darkness. Arashi had a torch, since the dragons didn't seem to be bothered by darkness. Jian finally answered Xzaris. "We have other tranzportation. You'll zee ... we're here."

The tunnel took a sharp turn, opening into a softly lit cave. This one was towering, but significantly different from the others as it contained an inlet of the sea. Also, it housed a collection of vessels, but there was one in particular that interested Romsca greatly.

"Me ship?? Ya stole me ship? This is where it went?"

Rocks looked innocent. "Oh, that'z your zhip?"

Romsca scowled. "It most certainly is!"

"Finderz keeperz!" Shui giggled. "But zeriouzly, it'z yourz?"

"Of course it's mine, me dad willed it ta me when he died, an' I've sailed her ever since."

Shui grinned. "That'z good, you can zteer it for uz then."

Romsca glowered, but said no more, though she thought quite a bit, and none of it was particularly nice. After all, lizards and ships had never been a good omen for anybeast, and especially not for her.

"You will, won't you?" Rocks put in. "We can zteel them, but we don't know that much about zhipz."

"Yea ..." Romsca sighed. "I'll steer her."

It took a few moments to get aboard the vessel, more so for Xzaris and Rocks. Romsca hauled herself over the railing, looking about her beloved ship just to make sure it was real. She'd truly not expected to see it again.

Arashi looked around the decks in the dim light, taking a deep breath. "Good old Waveworm. It's been forever."

"What in the name of the Elements happened here?" Barranca asked, pointing to the still battle-stained deck.

Romsca cringed as she noticed that even in poor light, her incompetent cleaning job was obvious. "I told ya. I only had two other beasts survive that attack ... Sayna helped all she could an' Abbotmouse .... tried. But we were more concerned with actual bodies ... I never did get 'round ta scrubbin' the deck."

Barranca made a face. "Or the mast, the forecastle stairs, the rails and everything else imaginable."

"Yea, well." Romsca snarled, stomping up the stairs to the wheel.

She laid her paws on the familiar wooden wheel, allowing herself the faintest smile, one that was soon gone. "How do ya plan ta get us outa here? There ain't enough a us ta row."

This was directed to Shui, standing at the rail. The blue lizard grinned. "You juzt worry about zteering. We'll do the rezt. Have Rockz roar if we're pulling too fazt."

She dove off the ship, her splash interrupting Romsca's blurted, "Pullin' too fast?"

The ferret scanned the dimly lit cavern, realizing the rest of the dragons had vanished from sight. Xzaris was standing at the base of the stairs, holding onto the rail. "Rom, did she say they was gonna pull yer ship?"

"Yea, I donno how ta feel 'bout this ..."

Rocks grinned. "They know what they're doing ... they did drag it in here in the firzt plaze."

Romsca gripped the wheel, grumbling, "Wull that's the truth .."

There was a sudden jolt, and Romsca nearly fell over backwards, clenching her paw around the wheel spokes to check her fall. Xzaris hung onto the stair rail tightly, but Val fell on her face, Barranca toppled into the mast, and Clecky almost fell overboard. Arashi wasn't anywhere to be seen, but there was a yelp from below decks.

Rocks looked amused at their antics, as he was barely fazed. "Furbeazt'z zpindly legz aren't good for much of anything, are they?"

"Rotters .." Clecky shoved himself from his precarious balance half across the rail to the deck.

"Romsca! Starboard, quick!" Barranca bellowed this from next to the mast, and his niece responded instantly. She spun the wheel, just skirting a sharp jag of rock at the tunnels' edge.

Rocks gulped. "Hey, don't cut it zo cloze! I can't zwim you know!"

Val staggered past the lizard, scolding, "Wull then don't distract the driver!"

At that moment they shot out of the cavern, a massive sea cave sulking in the dark shadow of towering cliffs. It was at the center of a sheltered bay, one that looked rather like a huge mouth in the wan moonlight.

Romsca allowed herself a sneer. It was either just before or after the new moon. Perfect. She steered through the small reef easily, as Val reached the top of the forecastle stairs. "It's sure dark tonight."

"Aye, that's the whole idea." Romsca grinned. "Ya'know how everybeast hates the new moon."

"Yeeeaa ..." Val frowned. "But I thought ya was scared a it too? Ya used ta be such a fraidy cat 'bout it."

"I ain't a fraidy cat bout nothin'!" Romsca snapped.

Val giggled. "Sure ya weren't."

"Oh fine." Romsca turned the wheel as she sighed in resignation. "But the plain truth is I met a greater deity than Astraria, an' I don't need her ta light me sky."

Val blinked. "Lord Rayith? Ya met him? But I always thought they was just Sampetra's legends."

"They is, least I think so. I'm talkin' 'bout another Lord entirely. Ignasa. I met him. But we can talk 'bout it later, ok?"

"Yea, ya better fess up ta whatever happened ta ya out there, cause ya've been pure crazy an' backwards since ya got back. But I'll let ya have tanight. Then ya better start talkin', deal?"

Romsca nodded. "Works fer me. But now I need ta focus on the plan of attack."

"'Bout that ..." Xzaris spoke up. "Where do I fit inta alla this?"

"It's near new moon, ain't it? They'll all be guardin' the wall, at least a lot a 'em. An' since Astraria don't light the sky, she can't ward off rovin' spirits, now can she?"

"Wait ..." Xzaris frowned. "Ya want me ta play ghost?"

Romsca nodded. "That's about the jist a it. I figure we got three beasts that's s'possed ta be dead here, me, ya, and me uncle. So we best make the mosta it."

"Rom, ghosts ain't blind. That's gonna pose a real problem."

"I ..." Romsca scowled. "We're jist gonna hav'ta work round that. I need ya, an' I want yer help. I want ya ta be able ta help. An' it will work!"

Xzaris hung his head. "Sounds like yer insanity's workin' up again."

"A course it is." Romsca rolled her eyes. "When's it not?"

"I jist don't want ya ta do somethin' stupid fer me sake. This ain't jist hard fer me, it's hard fer alla us ... but I'm blind now." He clenched a paw. "I can't do alla things I used ta. An' I don't want ya ta risk everybeast's life jist ta prove a point."

Romsca turned her head slightly, looking at him out of the corner of her vision. "Xzaris ... it ain't that. I donno why ... but I need ya here ok? I can't explain it. S'not like I have a great plan anyway .. I'm makin' this up as I go, an' me gut says I need ya, so there."

He shook his head, but gave in grudgingly. "Fine. I fergot what a wild ride sailin' with ya is."

"Ya don't have a plan?" Val sounded dismayed.

"Shh, keep yer mouth shut!" Romsca snapped, jerking her head in the direction of Barranca, Rocks, and Clecky, standing in different places on the main deck. "They don't need ta know that, cause it'll work out. It's a rare occasion I ever have a real plan, I jist sorta pull tagether what I think I'll need fer one an' let it work itself out. It's only failed ... once inna while."

"Lemme guess, yer fight with Lask was one that didn't go so well." Xzaris sighed.

Romsca stiffened, before she answered in a thin voice. "Yea. That one screwed up bad."

"Uhh... what's ta say this one ain't gonna do the same?" Val gulped.

"Cause it can't. I started this. I started it when I spared that liddle ottermaid, an' I sealed me fate when I kidnapped the Abbotmouse an' Sayna." Romsca's eyes glittered. "I'ma Dragon, an' we finish what we start."

She hung her head. "I didn't wanna drag ya inta it, but this is our chance ta prove ourselves ta the lizards without pickin' off a bunch'a ratguards who can't defend themselves. This way at least they'll have a chance afor we kill 'em. Or at least we'll be savin' some inna'cent woodlanders, so it feels a liddle nobler."

Val scowled. "Yea ... thanks lots ta Lutran. If there isn't a real plan .. what is there?"

"Wull .. we know these woodlanders were captured by Ublaz. That means they're gonna be in the dungeons .. if they're alive. Shilo showed me a secret entrance, so I kin get us in .. after that we terrify, capture, an' kill all the guards in our way til we find 'em, then we make a break fer the ship."

Xzaris rubbed his forehead with a groan. "Is that really gonna satisfy yer uncle?"

Romsca made a face. "I'm hopin' he don't ask. I'll make the rest up as I go .. or ya kin help, if ya kin think a somethin'."

Val broke in suddenly. "Ain't that the city?"

"Already?" Xzaris sounded confused.

Romsca frowned, squinting against the darkness. Sure enough, she could make out the twinkle of lights she knew as home ... or at least, they had been her home. "These lizards sure move fast."

"Of courze!"

All three wheeled around to see Rocks standing at the top of the stairs. Romsca wondered how long he'd been listening in. "They have the blood of the great zea dragonz."

Val raised an eyebrow. "So ... ya don't?"

"No, I'm from the tribe of the land dragonz." Rocks shrugged. "Zometimez it doezn't seem like my tribe iz very zpecail compared to the Zhanzhi, but we are the only onez left with pure blood, zo I zuppoze we are."

"Wull, if they can swim, what kin ya do ..." Val paused. "Oh yea, yer like ... invincible."

Rocks looked amused. "Yea, our hidez are tough. But we're not invinzable. Ztill, we are poizonouz."

Romsca's ears shot up. "What did ya say?"

"You didn't know? The feralz are too, I thought you'd figured it out."

Xzaris spoke slowly. "That actually x'plains some things. Like why a simple wound nearly landed me with a club foot fer good."

Rocks cocked his head. "If you experienzed our full poizon, you would not be telling about it unlezz you'd cut the leg off. The feral that wounded you muzt not have had anything but a mild toxin built up."

"Toxin? Built up?" Romsca was growing more alarmed as she heard this.

"Yez, when Neishi are aggrezive, we make poison ... on our frillz that iz." He smiled, as if remembering something. "Oh yez, I am poizonouz right now, zo pleaze don't touch me. I thought you knew or I would have zaid something zooner."

"Nice ta know!" Romsca side stepped a little.

Xzaris looked nervous. "Where is ya exactly?"

Val carefully led the blind ferret away from the lizard, nodding. "No offence ... but yea ... we wanna live ta see tomorrow."

"It'z fine, when we're poizionous we don't get too cloze to our own kind, much lezz defenzlezz furbeaztz." He frowned. "Your zkin iz zo fragile, it muzt be horrible to be that delicate."

"Figures only a lizard'd see Rom as delicate." Xzaris sounded half amused.

Val poked him jokingly. "Ya don't?"

He smirked, an expression that reminded Romsca of his long lost boyish grin. "I'd be a dead fool if'n I dared unnerestimate her like that."

A smile curled across her muzzle as she felt a little gratitude for those words and the honest amusement behind them. "Aye. I can take a few hits. An' I have the feelin' I'll take some tanight."

She hung her head. "Just .. stay alive."

"Oh I plan ta." Val grinned. "An' after what Ublaz did ta me an' Xzaris, I really wanna trash his palace!"

"Wull yer gonna have'ta hold off ... does killin' his guards suit ya? Cause I don't plan ta leave the dungeons." Romsca raised an eyebrow questioningly.

Val thought for a moment, before shrugging. "Yea, that'll work."

Barranca came up the stairs, stating, "We're almost there, I hope your plan was a good one, cause this is riding on you ... at least a lot of it."

Romsca didn't meet his gaze as she nodded. "Aye. Where's Arashi? Find her please."

The stoat nodded, walking back down. Romsca turned to Rocks. "I hate ta ask this, but can ya act like a Monitor?"

The lizard frowned. "You want me to pretend to be a feral? That iz a great inzult, you realize."

"I kinda guessed as much." Romsca admitted. "But ya can get past the guards with no trouble, an' I bet ya kin throw 'em fer a real loop too."

Val laughed. "Oh yea, can ya imagine their faces when a lizard attacks them? That I wanna see!"

Rocks sighed. "Alright. Juzt ... don't tell my zybalingz, they'd never let me live it down."

"I ain't gonna say nothin'." Romsca promised.

There was a scraping and scratching, and Shui popped up over the rail. "We're az cloze az we plan to take the zhip. Put the heavy weight on the chain down, and put the zmall boatz in the water."

Romsca sighed, ordering, "Lower the anchor an' ready the boats!"

Val saluted before trotting off to deal with the anchor. "Aye Capt'n!"

"Oh right." Romsca sighed. "I keep fergettin' I ain't got a crew. Somebeast help me with the life boats."

"Do we have enough?" Barranca asked. "Remember, I stoved one in an' buried it when we first escaped the city."

Romsca grumbled. "Oh that's what happened to it? All ya said was ya 'got rid'a the evidence.' Arrge, whatever. We'll make it work."

She walked down the stairs, tail switching behind her. Clecky had already lowered one of the boats, and Romsca walked to the next one, grabbing the rope holding it down and yanking the knot apart with one sharp tug.

Clecky stared for a moment, before grumbling, "You might of mentioned they did that a bit sooner! I just took this one apart with me bare paws, and it wasn't a lark either, wot?"

"A course not, I tied 'em ta be undone one way. An' if ya want ta know somethin', ya should ask." Romsca rolled her eyes, wishing she did not have to sail with woodlanders. They could be so clueless around ships, first the Abbotmouse and now this one ... at least Sayna had understood the basics of sailing even if it was obvious she was incompetent in the area.

Rocks looked over the railing, asking, "Which one do I ride in?"

Barranca huffed. "He'll sink it."

Arashi was behind him and she nodded. "That could be a real problem."

"I won't." Rocks insisted, and Romsca nodded.

"It should be fine, I had ta put Lask in one a me boats, an' nothin' happened, just make sure ya don't punch a hole inna bottem with yer tail."

Rocks climbed over the rail, scurrying down the ship's side and settling into one of the boats. There was a moment of uncertainty as it settled low in the water, but it didn't sink. Romsca nodded. "Alright, one or two a us can go with him, the rest'll have ta use the other boat. I want one boat completely empty, fer the beasts we rescue. Now let's move."

It didn't take long to board the life boats, and Romsca found herself in the boat with Rocks and Val. Shui floated effortlessly in the water next to them, and Romsca could see the other dragons in the water a little farther off.

She sat down, and Val leaned over the side, asking, "You're gonna pull us?"

"Of courze!" Shui grinned, grabbing the mooring rope in her claws as several others joined her. "You zilly furbeaztz can't move half az fazt!"

Romsca gripped the edge of her seat tightly, but she wasn't prepared for the force she experienced. The little boat took off like a shot, sending Romsca head over heels and straight against Rocks' chest. Val smashed into them both with a little scream of dismay.

The lizard looked down at the two pirates sprawled on the boat's floor at his feet, a wide grin spreading across his face. "Zilly furbeaztz."

Romsca scowled, before snorting in amusement. She probably did look stupid half upside down in the bottom of a life boat. Val sat up, her red hair streaming out behind her. "Whoa .. this is so awesome!"

Romsca struggled into a sitting position as Rocks reminded, "Juzt don't touch my frillz."

Val scooted away. "Oh yea ... don't worry."

The boat streaked into the fog bank that always collected in the harbor, and Val's grin transformed into instant dismay. "We'll wreck!"

"You forget they're underwater." Rocks reassured them. "They can zee even if we can't."

It was mentally comforting, but Romsca couldn't shake off the feeling they'd smash into a ship at any moment. The dark shadows of moored vessels flew by them, appearing only to vanish into the fog moments later. It seemed like only a few minutes before the boat slowed dramatically, coming to a gentle stop as it floated against a pier.

Romsca slowly climbed onto the dock, realizing her legs were shaking slightly. Rocks jumped onto the pier, and Val followed with the mooring rope, securing the boat. It was only a few seconds before the other vessel floated against the dock, and Barranca scrambled out of it, fur sticking up crazily. "I'm never doing that again!"

Clecky looked shaken. "Y .. you're right about that wot?"

Arashi vaulted onto the dock, shaking herself off. "It wasn't so bad."

She reached down, grabbing Xzaris's paw and helping him out of the boat. Shui climbed up one of the supports of the dock, stating, "We cannot be zeen by them."

"What?" Arashi asked. "You're not coming with us?"

"I'm zorry, but if a new kind of lizard was zeen by your kind, it would cauze chaos, and we would only endanger our kind even more. Two of uz will follow your group in the zhadow, but we will only engage beaztz if there iz no other choize, and all who zee uz must die. Do you underztand?"

Romsca met the blue dragon's gaze, nodding. "Aye. Let's move, every moment we waste could be those woodlander's last!"

><><

The creak of the hall door made Grath look up, and scoot farther into her cell's corner. Three new guards entered the corridor, the silver male at their head speaking first. "Bring her out."

His two subordinates hurried to Grath's cell, unlocking the door and walking in. The otter braced herself, half considering drawing the dagger Hood had given her, but something held her back.

It was fear, mind-numbing fear that always rendered her helpless in these situations. The two guards dragged her to her paws, yanking her arms behind her and tying them cruelly tight with a length of rope.

They shoved her out into the hall, and the gray rat nodded. He stalked off down the passageway, and Grath's guards shoved her after him. The otter didn't resist, even if her mind was working furiously.

As she passed a cell, she found herself staring at Martin, chained to the wall. The mouse met her gaze sadly, biting his lip. She knew that meant he had no plan, and was ashamed of it. It was most disheartening.

Grath stumbled a little, and the rats shoved her back upright, forcing her to keep walking. Cracklyn, Plogg, and Welko appeared in three different cells near each other, the squirrel grabbed the bars and yelled, "Hey, what are you doing with her! Let us go!"

The silver rat jabbed his trident at her. "Shut yer mouth tree-hopper."

"Well, aren't you going to gloat about what your big plan is?" Cracklyn growled.

"It ain't my big plan. Why should I care? I won't say it again, shut yer idiot mouth."

Grath gave her a warning look .. the last thing the squirrel needed was to get into more trouble. The guards kept moving, forcing her along with them.

The otter tried moving her paws against their bonds, and she found she could rotate them a little. If she could only reach that dagger, she might have a small chance. She twisted her paws until they ached, fingertips grasping at where she knew the hilt should be.

Grath almost tripped on the stairs that presumably led out of the dungeons, and the guards grabbed her arms, wrenching them away from her intended goal as they dragged her up the staircase.

She gritted her teeth against the burning sensation in her shoulders, and regained her feet. Contrary to her thoughts, the set of stairs did not lead out of the underground maze, but simply to another level of it. This one seemed more like barracks for guards, and Grath assumed that was indeed its function.

Several other guards joined them, and Grath felt her chances of escape were dwindling past zero percent. She glared at the rats out of the corners of her eyes, sizing them up. Sadly for her, they all looked pretty experienced.

The otter flattened her ears in depression. Without a bow, arrows, and at least ten feet between her and her opponent, she really was useless.

No, she shouldn't think like that. She needed to try ... but for what? She needed an objective. And to have that, she needed to know what they planned on doing with her. That couldn't be too hard to figure out, could it?

"Hey, what do you plan to do to me?" Grath had hoped it would come across as daring and brash, but naturally that failed miserably, and the words came out as a sort of timid squeak.

One of the rats sneered at her. "The Emperor has somethin' real special jist fer ya .."

His companion shoved him hard. "Shut up ya idiot. Ignore her."

Grath's heart sank further, something she'd previously regarded as impossible. But there was one spark of hope, one deranged thought. The Emperor would be there? Wasn't taking down it's leader the easiest way to throw a nation into chaos?

They made their way down a long tunnel, fairly well maintained, though obviously ancient. The cold gray stone was lit forebodingly by the lanterns two of the ratguards carried, old torch holders casting spidery shadows.

Grath again twisted her paws around, straining against her bonds as she tried the reach the dagger. It took a few moments, but her claws did connect with the hilt at last.

She thanked Ignasa for her skill with a paintbrush and how dexterous it had made her as she pulled the knife from her belt and flipped the blade up, against the ropes. Her palms held the handle tightly between them, and she silently began to saw away at her bonds, a feat that had seemed a lot easier in her imagination.

Somehow or other, when she'd thought up this idea, the ropes had instantly been slashed through. However, that wasn't what happened. In fact, nothing seemed to take place even after minutes of sawing, aside from a nasty cramp building up in her wrists.

The tunnel seemed to go on forever. Grath had thought the dungeons were only under the palace, but it was now apparent that could not be the case. They had to be under the entire city, or at least a good portion of it.

Cutting the ropes was proving to be a real challenge, now the dagger had become jammed in the very thing it was supposed to break. Grath was pulled back into a sudden stop, and she looked up in confusion. They had come the tunnel's end, and a heavy wooden door.

Grath did get the idea into her head that she would be led out into the open, or at least another chamber of this subterranean prison, but it turned out to be neither.

Instead she found herself forced to climb a staircase of what seemed to be a monumental tower. It was square, and kept going up for a long ways. Minutes of climbing passed, and Grath tried to think of what she could possibly be in.

As she climbed and thought, she tried working on her bonds again, but the dagger was firmly caught in the ropes themselves. Presently they reached an upper floor, and the rat in charge walked to one of the two doors, each set in opposite walls of the tower.

He pulled on the heavy ring, yanking it open and letting in a stiff sea breeze. Grath found herself shoved through the door, and her breath caught in her throat. The city spread out on one side of her like an abyss of shadows adorned with twinkling lights, and on the other, simply an abyss of darkness.

The wind was fairly strong here, and it whipped her dirty hair this way and that. She stood on the great guardian wall that surrounded the city, feeling very small and very helpless.

"So you managed to join me, daughter of Lutra?"

Grath jerked her head up, to see Ublaz standing several yards away, two of the lizards on either side of him. His smile widened. "What fun this will be."

The otter pinned her ears, a shiver running down her spine as the emperor held a paw out in her direction, twitching his claws in a beckoning motion.

Grath caught her breath as pure evil wrapped around her, her stomach lurching as it dragged her forward. Ublaz smiled at her obvious discomfort. "Do you like that? Quite a little trick, isn't it?"

She didn't answer him. It felt like she was choking on the very air she tried to breathe every second the darkness surrounded her. Ublaz twitched his paw, spontaneously lifting her chin so she looked into his eyes ... and what eyes they were. Like pale golden pools of light, they were striking, freakish, disturbing, beautiful, and completely fixating all at the same time.

Grath tried to look away, only to find her body was no longer under her control .. she couldn't move an inch.

"That's right little woodlander." Ublaz was delighted by her fear. "Your will means nothing to me."

She was paralyzed by an unspeakable fear, inescapable and overpowering, one that made her feel like she was going to be sick. There was nothing she would have loved more than to turn and run, run until she ran out of air and dropped dead, but it was not an option.

Ublaz laughed. "While I admit that would be amusing, I have other plans."

Grath could not suppress her sudden glare .. the way he read her thoughts was infuriating. Ublaz looked mildly interested in this, sneering, "Most cannot even think once they are under my power, and I certainly didn't expect such a feat from you. But in the end, it really doesn't matter. No living creature has more power than I do."

His smile was a nasty thing, and he was quite fond of using it. "Now I suppose you'd like to know what I plan to do with you?"

Grath didn't try to struggle as his words sank into her head ... no living creature could defeat him. But an immortal deity could .. couldn't he?

The otter clenched her paws tightly, mentally crying out for her lord with all her might.

Ignasa! Help me, please!

For one second nothing happened, then there was a blinding flash of blue light all around her, and the choking, sick feeling lifted. Grath fell to her knees, and in that second, she felt the ropes around her paws loosen. The strands she had wedged the dagger in snapped, and the small weapon fell into her paws as the bonds unraveled.

Ublaz stared at her, a look of shock mixed with fury in his eyes as his smile dissipated like mist after daybreak.

Grath’s heart burned with fury as she realized he didn’t have control over her, no matter what he said, and no matter what it felt like. She launched herself forward, screaming, “You will pay for what you did to them!”

He threw himself backwards in effort to escape the dagger she had aimed at his throat. As Grath had poor aim when it came to close range combat anyway, the blade slashed across the bridge of his nose and down his cheek.

Ublaz clapped a paw to his face, staggering back as blood trickled through his claws and down his paw and wrist. Grath fell to the ground in an ungainly heap, and while she recovered quickly, her one chance was over and done with.

The two lizards savagely dragged her to the ground, pinning her there. The ratguards all looked shocked, and shaken, for good reason.

Ublaz slowly let his bloody paw drop, revealing the deep gash across his nose. His voice was controlled, but dark ... not a jovial evil, but a manifestation of hatred. “It has been many seasons since somebeast dared lay a paw on me, and you will pay the price for it accordingly.”

Grath’s rush of anger seeped away, leaving the normal, hated fear in its place, and she shivered. Ublaz nodded to the guards, and they hauled her to her feet, shoving her against the parapet of the massive wall they stood on.

Ublaz stalked toward her like a wolf cornering a mouse, growling, “I see I have severely underestimated you, daughter of Lutra. Never before has any creature been able to break free of my magic. You can feel a sense of pride in that one final accomplishment, I suppose.”

He reached out, gripping her chin firmly in his paw and trying to force her to meet his gaze. “How did you do it?”

Grath closed her eyes tightly, and Ublaz’s claws dug into her chin, causing sharp bolts of pain in her jaw. “Tell me.”

“I don’t know!” Grath cried out at last, when she could take no more. “It wasn’t me, it was Ignasa!”

“Was it now?” Ublaz did not sound convinced. “I will admit he had something to do with it. But if you thought using your power was a good idea, you were wrong ... now I know exactly who you are, and it makes your death all the more important.”

He suddenly smiled again, nastily. “It is a fine day indeed. If you are one of them, then your friends could very well be the same. I will eliminate all of them this very night, but first ..”

Grath cracked her eyes open just in time to see the faint glitter of the dagger in Ublaz’s paw, and a searing flash of pain tore across her face.

Without the option of clapping her paws against the injury, all she could do was shriek, half out of shock, but mostly out of pain. The ratguards held her down firmly as unwanted tears sprang into her eyes and the warm sensation of blood ran down her muzzle and jaw.

“I could do so much worse to you.” Ublaz sneered. “And truly, I’d like too. But fortunately for you, I also need to deal with your friends. So I’ll just kill you and be done with it.”

Grath whimpered softly as he grinned. “They say otters are the greatest swimmers on earth? We’ll see just how far you swim when I’m through with you.”

><><

Romsca's boots made thuds on the deserted side streets she ran through, and Xzaris's did the same close behind her, as she had a tight hold on his arm. Val was just a few paces behind them, and Rocks kept up easily.

They stopped in the shadow of a house, and Romsca peered around the corner. "The coast's clear, c'mon!"

Val ran alongside Rocks, asking, "Ya kin tell us when the Monitors is comin', right?"

"I don't know, the feral'z zent iz everywhere ... nazty. I'll do what I can." He looked quite nervous himself, something that was hardly comforting for Romsca.

Xzaris gripped her arm tightly, his staff slung over his back lest he trip over it in his haste. Val caught up to the two of them, asking, "Yer sure Capt'n Barranca knows where ta go?"

Romsca gulped. "I think so, but I ain't sure a anythin'!"

"Hey, ztop!" Rocks slid to a halt, and the others did to.

Xzaris tensed, flattening his ears. "What is it?"

Rocks growled. "Feralz ... act like normal piratez, quick!"

"Uhh .." Romsca tried to think of a good façade, or even a bad one, but her mind was horrifyingly blank. It was Val who saved the day.

She shoved herself between Romsca and Xzaris, wrapping a paw over their shoulders. "Hey, ya ta lovebirds wanna go ta ol' Kia's tavern? I betcha there's some nice gossip down there 'bout now."

Romsca gave Val a frustrated look as she saw two Monitors round a corner just a little ways in front of them. Rocks was looking just a stupid as he could, inconspicuously sniffing the ground a few feet away.

Val shoved Romsca hard in the ribs, and the ferret scowled, before putting on a fake grin. "Oh sure! Sound's great .. com'on, let's go ta the tavern."

The Monitors paused to watch them, and one of them greeted Rocks with a good amount of smelling and a little negativity. He responded by scuffling his forefeet and ducking his head, making an odd clicking noise in the back of his throat, and flattening his frills against his neck. The Monitor lifted it's head high, flicking it's tongue at Rocks in a demeaning manner, before joining its companion.

Val jabbed Xzaris in the ribs, and by the look on his face, Romsca could tell the last thing he wanted was to answer positively. To his credit, he did. "Good idea, it'll be fun ... won't it .. uh .. Beautiful?"

Romsca jabbed Val back, before grinning forcedly. "Sure will .. Honey .."

The Monitors passed, disappearing down another street, and the three relaxed. Val poked both Romsca and Xzaris the next second, scolding, "Yeesh, do better'n that! Be glad it weren't nothin' smarter'n Monitors! That was jist .. awful. Be more sincere'n that!"

"Sorry." Xzaris rubbed his ribs.

"Ya should know better Val." Romsca wasn't as apologetic.

Rocks scowled after the lizards. "Ha, he thinkz he'z zo tough ... lozer .. I could znap hiz neck in one try."

He caught sight of the pirates watching him, and he growled, "Don't ever tell anyone I zhowed zubmizzion to a feral, zee? Juzt keep your mouthz zhut, I may az well have trampled my honor in mud, and I did it for you."

Val nodded quickly. "Don't worry one bit."

Xzaris shrugged. "I donno what even happened."

"I ain't tellin'." Romsca grabbed Xzaris's paw again. "Can ya smell anymore a 'em?"

Rocks sniffed the air, before shaking his head. "Not that cloze. Let'z go!"

He bounded on ahead, and the others followed, Romsca pointing to the next street they needed to take. "That way!"

The lizard shook himself as he ran, snarling in disgust. "Thoze feralz are even more inzulting than I remember! To think Neizhi could ztoop zo low .. ughe, I think I might looze my zupper. Bezidez, they zmell wrong."

"Huh? What'cha mean by that?" Val asked.

"I mean they zmell .. off. Like they're fake. Like they aren't even alive." A visible shudder ran down Rocks' long back. "Zomething iz wrong with them. They aren't wild anymore .. they're domezticated. They're petz, and they like it! It'z deeper to .. like something at their core haz been altered .. they aren't even Neizhi anymore."

Romsca skidded to a halt as the side street they were on connected to a far larger roadway. Her two friends came to a clumsy stop behind her, and she raised a paw to her lips. "Hush! Guards!"

A group of at least seven ratguards were conversing in the town square just around the corner. One of them looked around, asking, "What was that?"

Val held her breath as another snorted, "What was what? Yer jumpy tonight."

"I'm serious, I heard somethin'!"

"Oh fine, I'll look if it'll make ya happy."

Romsca stiffened, and Rocks gave her a look. "Leave thiz to me."

The lizard walked into plain sight, and the first guard grumbled, "Oh, it's one'a them."

His companion shook her head. "Told ya it was nothin' .. hey ya, get back ta yer patrol, Emperor's orders."

Rocks cocked his head for a moment, before hissing and sulking back into the shadows with the pirates.

"Nice one." Val muttered.

Romsca growled under her breath. "Come on, we gotta get past them. Stick to the shadows an' be silent."

Xzaris stuck close to her as they kept to the walls of shops, all closed for the night. Rocks held his scraping tail off the ground, keeping his steps small and light .. something he did disturbingly well.

They reached the next street, a narrow, uphill road, and Romsca sighed under her breath, muttering, "This is the right one .. we're gettin' close."

Val frowned, keeping up with Romsca. "Ya know, I still don't think we shoulda split up!"

"There were too many a us ta all go tagether, we'd a been caught fer sure." Romsca countered. She was looking at Val, and wasn't paying attention to the ground in front of them. Xzaris tripped, falling into her, and they both crumpled to the cobblestones.

The male ferret rocked back onto his knees as Romsca stood again. He didn't get up right away, but he ignored the paw Romsca offered, likely because he simply couldn't see it. Xzaris pulled the staff off his back, using it to stand.

"Here, take my paw." Romsca grabbed his arm, but Xzaris pulled it away.

"Ya can't take me in there, I'm a walkin' liability! I'll jist get us all killed."

To be honest, Romsca was second guessing her gut feeling. What had she even been thinking? But Xzaris had been so reliable before ... accepting this was how he would live the rest of his life was hard.

"It'll be ok .." She tried to promise, but he interrupted.

"Yer lyin'. I shoulda jist stayed onna ship. Ya an' Barranca is ghosts 'nough." Xzaris started walking again. "Let's jist go. I'll wait in the tunnel."

Romsca looked down, flattening her ears out of sorrow, more than anything. "You're always right ain't ya? I guess I just wanted ta think ya was gonna be fine."

Xzaris scowled. "I ain't never gonna be ok again Rom. Get used ta it, cause it'll be better fer everybeast."

She watched him walk down the street for a moment, before sighing and bolting forward again. Right now, she needed to focus on the mission at paw, and that was rescuing the woodlanders and making it out alive.

She grabbed Xzaris's arm as she ran passed him, pulling him along with her. "This way, it's just ahead."

They reached the neglected garden and paused in the street running past it. Rocks sniffed the air, before stating. "I zmell ratz."

"Great ... do ya smell the others?" Romsca asked.

There was a sudden scuffling of paws and a ratguard ran out of a nearby ally, battered and breathing heavily. He saw Rocks first, and cried out desperately. "Help! Intruders! It's Captain Barranca, your master wants his head, so stop them ..."

He seemed to notice the three pirates standing behind the lizard at that moment, choking on his words. "Captain Xzaris? Romsca??"

Rocks lunged forward, dragging the guard to the ground and slashing his frills across his face. The rat gasped, struggling helplessly for a few moments as Rocks held him down, before he went limp, staring blankly at the sky as he twitched feebly.

The lizard shrugged. "He zaw too much. I think your uncle needz our help."

"Right ..." Romsca shuddered, thinking on Sayna's warning about poison being a way for her to die for good. "Look, Val, you an' Xzaris locate the tunnel, it's behind some real thick old bamboo. Me'n Rocks are gonna help the others."

The lizard was sniffing the air, and he nodded. "Thiz way."

He bounded off, Romsca close on his heels. They entered the ally the guard had come running out of, and it wasn't long before they heard sounds of a scuffle.

Romsca reached up, grabbing the handle of her axe and drawing it as they rounded a corner. It was a good thing too, as she found herself faced with a melee, and two dumbfounded ratguards.

Romsca recovered before they did, beheading one instantly. The other guard dodged aside as Romsca's axe finished it's swing, and she swung the weapon backwards, slashing it's smaller blade into the second rat's throat.

He fell next to his comrade's headless corpse, dead. Romsca stood still momentarily, taking in the situation as her axe blades dripped crimson to the cobblestones she stood on.

Really, there wasn't much of a fight left, as Barranca, Arashi, Clecky, and the two Zhanshi with them were all capable as warriors. Romsca and Rocks' interruption only brought about the inevitable sooner.

Clecky had the last guard pinned against the wall of a house, and while the beast was battered, he was still alive.

Barranca walked over, stepping across the body of his fallen foe to do so. "May I?"

The hare blinked, before taking a step back. Barranca grabbed the guard's chin, growling in his face. "Where are the woodlanders, and what does Ublaz plan to do with them?"

"Wh .. what?" The guard groaned, revealing a few of his teeth were missing.

"The woodlanders! I know you know where they are! Speak or die!" Barranca slammed the smaller creature against the wall.

"Ok, ok! Mosta 'em are in the dungeons, fourth corridor! The male otter was bein' tortured last I knew! I donno more, I swear by Rayith!"

Barranca sneered. "You'd do well to swear by the night goddess at night, you fool. A day god can't help you after sunset ... go meet Lord Fora!"

He thrust his saber under the guard's chestplate, and the rat gasped, falling forward. The stoat sidestepped and withdrew his blade, allowing his victim to collapse beside him. Clecky protested, "Hey, he complied didn't he? You didn't have to kill him, wot?"

"And would you like him reporting of our presence? Besides, he just said one of your friends was being tortured, time is essential. Where are Val and Xzaris?"

This was directed to Romsca, who nodded. "They're waiting at the tunnel."

"We'll take care of the bodiez." One of the Zhanshi stated. "You go."

Rocks started down the long, twisting alley leading to the garden. "Thiz way."

Clecky gave Barranca a dark look, before heading after the lizard. "Chap, take us there as fast as you bally well can."

Rocks nodded, breaking into a run, and the rest of the group quickly followed him. He lept over the slowly crumbling garden wall as he reached it, clearing it perfectly .. except for his tail, which smashed a few bricks to the ground.

Clecky vaulted over it with perfect ease, Romsca, Barranca, and Arashi close behind. There was a rustling, and Val popped out of the nearby stand of bushes. "Oh good, it's jist ya. Com'on, Xzaris is waiting inna tunnel."

She led the way in, and it wasn't particularly fast, as they could only enter in single file. Rocks was last, and his spiked tail felled a few stalks of bamboo in the process. He tugged himself into the tunnel, leaving several gaps in the concealing plants. Val shrugged, stating, "Well .. let's hope nobeast notices."

Romsca sighed, before reasoning, "It's at the back of the garden, it should be fine. This way."

><><

Martin sat still in his cell, staring blankly out into the corridor. Cracklyn had given up arguing with Plogg and Welko, and had resorted to sulking in the far corner of her cell, where as far as Martin could tell, she'd fallen asleep.

The two shrews were sitting at opposite ends of their cells, as far away from each other as possible, probably still blaming each other for how things had worked out.

Martin had spent the last several hours trying to unlock the manacles on his bare ankles, that were fastened to the floor with thick chains. However, luck eluded him just as much as success ... these pirates knew what they were doing.

Honestly, half of him was glad he was in a dark prison cell, as he had no real clothes to speak of anymore. In any normal situation, that fact in and of itself would have been his top concern, but this was a disaster on so many levels he had other things to worry about.

Hood wasn't moving, once the guards had dragged them from the throne room, Inbar had not been returned, and now the rats had taken Grath. Aside from all that, Martin couldn't shake off the feeling his execution was being planned. Probably because it was.

Two guards patrolled the corridor their cells lined, and since they were replaced every hour, it could only be assumed more were nearby.

Martin stopped wiggling his claw in the lock of his shackles, leaning against the back wall of his cell with a sigh.

At that moment, there was a muffled exclamation from outside the prison corridor, then two swift clashes and a clinking thud.

The two guards looked up in alarm as the door at the far end of the hall was flung open with a slam, and a beast jumped into view, axe dripping crimson and a sadistic smile on her face. The rats stood frozen in their tracks, one gaping, the other going pale.

Martin scooted toward the bars to get a better look, and he felt a chill run down his spin as well. He had seen this pirate before .. she was the leader of the ones that had taken Durral! He was almost certain.

She stalked forward as a Monitor appear behind her, growling audibly. One of the rats gasped, "Capt'n ... Romsca?"

"Her ghost!" The creature laughed, a maddened, chilling sound. "I'll make Ublaz pay fer what he did ta me ... an' ya helped him! It's Hellgates fer ya!"

The one guard grabbed his companion's arm, voice dry with fear. "Run!"

Romsca bolted forward, and Martin scrambled away from the door of his cell as she ran past it. The ferret caught up to the first guard, grabbing one of her arms and twisting it behind her as she planted a knee in her back, taking her to the ground.

The rat struggled to draw her dagger, but Romsca slammed her axe-pole over her head, rendering her unconscious at best. There was a scream as the Monitor caught up with the other guard, dragging him to the ground, claws punching through his armor like it was made of cloth. Martin looked away as the lizard tore its fangs into the rat's throat.

Romsca stood, snapping, "That's torn it, more'll be here soon ... ya couldn't shut him up faster?"

"Zorry. Get ztarted, I'll give the otherz the all clear." The lizard spoke quiet intelligently, unlike the others Martin had seen.

Romsca knelt beside the guard she'd brought down, searching her belt, probably for keys. Cracklyn was awake now, and had her face pressed against the bars. "Who are you?"

The ferret looked up, and she replied in a perfectly normal voice, unlike her earlier crazy laughter. "I'm here ta free ya, help me out, where's the keys?"

"I don't know." Martin spoke up. "But I think I've seen you before."

Plogg broke in accusingly. "Hey, I know you! You were in that crew that took the abbot!"

Welko growled. "Where is he? You better not have hurt him!"

"I didn't ... grr .. I mean he's fine. Now the keys!" Romsca looked frustrated.

Martin clenched a fist. "Sayna better be alright too! And how can we trust you?"

The ferret walked over to the guard the lizard had killed, checking his belt as she answered. "Sayna's .. safe. Yer gonna have ta, will ya tell me where the keys are?"

"I don't know." Martin consented to answering as the Monitor came through the door, followed by a red haired foxmaid and a stoat who had a commanding air about him. A female ferret was behind them, and a creature in a long russet coat and feathered hat.

Martin stared at him a moment, before blurting, "Clecky?! Clecky! It's you!"

The hare pulled his hat off, sighing, "That obvious, wot?"

"What are you doing here? With pirates and lizards!" Cracklyn exclaimed.

"Long story megel .. where's Hood?"

The squirrel looked down instantly, and Plogg shook his head. "That pine marten emperor did something to him, and he's been practically unconscious since then."

"What?" Clecky shook his head. "Nah, Hood can withstand nearly everything!"

Welko shook his head. "Well he's not too lively ... he's over there."

The hare grabbed a torch from the wall, walking over to the cell Welko had pointed to. "Hood mate, you ok?"

He raised the light, and suddenly froze. "Hood! What's wrong? Get this door open now!"

"I would if'n I had the keys." Romsca groaned. "They're probably not even in this corridor ..."

The door slammed open as three rats rushed in, and then froze upon sight of the intruders. The stoat reacted instantly, lunging forward and attacking one of them, who, to his credit, recovered quickly and blocked his initial slash.

Clecky was in on the action next, grabbing one of the guards by the throat and slamming him against the wall, grabbing the shaft of his trident and ripping it from his paws. The third guard turned to flee, both Romsca and the lizard going after him. Naturally the lizard got there first, plowing him off his feet and ripping his claws into the guard's neck.

Clecky's guard struggled, opening his mouth to yell for help, but the hare clamped a paw over his it, growling, "I wouldn't do that chap."

The stoat ran his opponent through, withdrawing a bloodstained saber as the rat crumpled to the ground with the clinking of armor.

There was a moment of silence, likely to discern if any more guards were on the way. After a few seconds, Clecky turned back to the rat he had pinned against the wall. “The keys chap, where are they?”

The guard didn’t answer, he twisted out of Clecky’s grasp, jabbing a flat paw into the hare’s right shoulder twice and kicking his legs out from under him. Arashi moved like lightning, drawing her katana in a single swift movement, and running the guard through from behind.

He collapsed, and Clecky slowly got to his paws. He rubbed his right shoulder ruefully, gasping, “I can’t move it! Not a bally inch!”

“That’ll wear off ... in a while.” Arashi sighed. “And I thought they didn’t teach the guard Dragon’s Strike anymore.”

She rubbed the hare’s shoulder, shrugging, “He wasn’t very good at it. Ye should be able to move your arm in fifteen minutes or so. I’ll stay here with ye. The rest of ye, go find the keys.”

“And Inbar!” Clecky insisted. “The chap’s not here. And he’s a bally otter!”

Romsca nodded. “Point taken. If we head down the outside hall, we should find the guard room .. betcha the keys is there.”

They left quickly, and Clecky winced, stating, “My entire arm is useless! How could that rotter do that with his bare paws? Me, a boxing hare, wot?”

“Oh, ye box?” Arashi sounded .. uninterested, to say the nicest. “Ye left yourself open then. Dragon’s Strike is far more effective. Instead of simply pummeling an enemy to the dirt, it combines elegance and strength. The guard blocked the flow of energy into your arm, rendering it useless, it’s quite simple.”

Clecky did not seem to find it so, from the look on his face. Martin pulled himself close to the bars of his cell, asking, “I know there are more pressing things, but is it possible for me to get some pants? Or a tunic?”

Arashi smiled, kneeling beside a dead ratguard and loosening his belt. “I’ll see ye better than that. How about an entire suit of armor?”

><><

Grath’s legs trembled as she stared down the edge of the wall, into the seemingly endless abyss of blackness over the ocean. She could see the gleam of the waves far below, glittering ever so faintly in the light of the stars.

The ratguards held her down as one of them clamped a manacle onto her left ankle, one that was connected to a metal weight with a thick chain. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what her fate would be, but the knowledge made it even worse.

This part of the wall stood in the sea itself, framing a few yards of the bay. Ublaz ran a paw across her shoulders, sneering, “I assume you love the sea? You’ll be a part of it forever, how does that sound?”

Grath swallowed hard, glaring at him as he stopped beside her. “You do know you’re getting off easy, daughter of Lutra. I just thought this was ... poetic justice, in a way.”

“Don’t ever say that word again.” Grath snapped. “Clearly you don’t have a clue what justice means.”

Ublaz laughed softly. “Do any of us?”

He raised a paw, curling his claws into a loose fist. Grath gasped as the smothering evil wrapped around her again, threatening to choke her. Her feet slowly left the ground, along with the weight chained to them, and Grath stared dumbly at the emperor as he lifted her over the side of the wall.

She was suspended over a staggering drop, the ocean at the end of it, and nothing was holding her, nothing but Ublaz’s sickening power. Grath felt her stomach lurch as Ublaz smiled, a horrible thing to see on the face of the one who would kill her.

“Let the world know I have left Lutra no decedents. Die knowing that within six seasons, every woodlander now living will join you in death, by my orders.”

Grath gaped at him, unable to wrap her mind around that horrific of an atrocity. She didn’t have time to counter, or even fully comprehend the depravity of Ublaz’s plan, as he opened his fist, and the power withdrew instantly.

It felt like her heart remained caught in the emperor’s magic as she plummeted toward certain death, barely able to gasp in a final breath. She hit the water hard, but her fall barely slowed as she fell through the black water, the faint sparkle of starlight vanishing from sight.

Grath clawed at the water instinctively, kicking out powerfully with her free foot, and she did slow her descent, but it was not enough. Her back foot suddenly connected with sand, and a few bubbles of air escaped her as she realized she had reached the bottom.

There was no way she could possibly swim to the surface with the weight .. perhaps she could if breathing was not an issue, but it was.

She clenched her paw around the manacle, pulling on it desperately as her lungs began to burn. She hadn’t been able to take a deep breath, and the time she could stay underwater paled in comparison with most otters.

Grath knew she was as good as dead, but something wouldn’t let her accept it. Why? Why did she have to die while that freak lived and carried out his demented plans?

She gave up yanking on her shackles, and kicked off the sandy bottom, swimming for the surface with all her strength .. she would not die! She would save her friends .. she had to!

But desperation could only get her so far, and her muscles gave out pitifully soon, the weight dragging her back to the ocean floor. Grath clenched her teeth, shoving off the ground again, only to be pulled back to her final resting place in a matter of seconds.

Her strength was gone, and her will felt like it was cracking as she slowly collapsed to the silt, her elbows resting in it as more air left her, her senses starting to swim.

This was really the end for her. It was over. She’d done nothing.

No .. she’d done just enough to doom her friends.

It was pitch black and cold, cold that was quickly penetrating her fur. Something touched her shoulder, and the vague idea of sharks came to her, but reality was fading away.

She weakly scratched at her attacker, but whatever it was tightened its grip on her, and her senses fell into a shroud of darkness.



Chapter 29 Traitors to the Crown

TotO &#039;Reunited&#039;

Val had her ear against the worn wooden door set in the stone wall, and she nodded silently, murmuring, "Yea, that's the guard room."

Barranca took her place, setting his shoulder against the wood. "Remember, leave one alive to question."

The stoat shoved the door open, startling the numerous ratguards lounging in chairs or against the walls. Romsca didn't have time to count them all, as she threw herself into the attack, engaging the first guard she came to.

He was stocky for a rat, but still considerably smaller than a ferret, which did give Romsca the upper paw. However the guard was quick to recover from his shock, and proved to be an actual obstacle.

He ducked under her first attack, spinning his trident into a offensive position and slashing at her torso. She drew her ten-inch knife, subtly wishing for her cutlass Sayna had shattered as she dodged the blow.

The guard was advancing, and Romsca relented to retreating for a few steps, before she launched forward again, attacking with both axe and knife. She shoved the rat against the nearest wall, pinning his trident to the wall with her axe, and he instantly moved to draw his dagger.

Romsca already had her knife free, and she slashed down with it before the guard could retaliate. He slumped against the wall and she let him fall to the ground, looking for her next foe. Rocks had blocked the door so the ratguards couldn’t escape, and from the looks of things, had taken down four or five himself.

Val was in the act of withdrawing her katana from between the plates of a guard’s armor, and two corpses lay at Barranca’s feet while he battled another rat. Romsca heard a sudden clink from behind her and spun around, ducking under her would-be assassin’s first thrust. She swung her axe viciously, smashing the pointed, smaller blade into his chestplate and denting it as the force threw its wearer against the wall.

His head snapped back, slamming hard against the wall, and only his helmet saved him from being knocked unconscious. Romsca twirled her axe, walking forward with the intent to behead him, but he held up a weak paw. “Forgive me capt’n!”

His voice was raspy, likely because the damage to his armor had bruised his chest and ribs considerably, if not breaking bones. He didn’t move to rise, just held out a paw, eyes pleading for his life. “I shoulda known better, spare me, please!”

Romsca scanned her surroundings for another attacker, before growling, “Why should I? Ya just tried ta kill me, seems like yer my enemy.”

“I’ll tell ya anythin’!”

Romsca cast a glance at Barranca, who nodded as he ran the last guard through. The ferret sneered. “Fine, though it don’t mean I’ll let’ya live. Where are the keys?”

The guard coughed, pointing at one of the bodies. “The sergeant had ‘em.”

Val quickly bent down and found them, pulling the ring from the corpse’s belt. “Yep!”

Romsca nodded, snapping, “Where’s the torture devises? Last I heard there was an otter bein’ held there.”

“Second level .. first corridor.” The guard rasped. “But why’s ya wanna save an otter .. yer a capt’n!”

“None a yer business.” Romsca growled. “I heard tell Madeyes had the last daughter a Lutra here. Where is she?”

He looked bewildered. “I donno .. should be inna cells til Ublaz has her executed .. an’ how da ya know ..”

Romsca loomed over him, grinning madly. “Ghosts knows everythin’! I’m here ta make Madeyes pay fer everythin’ he’s done, an’ ya kin just tell ‘im it whenever ya wake up!”

She smashed her axe-pole into his jaw, and his eyes rolled up in his head as he slumped to the floor. Barranca held his crimson stained saber at the ready, growling, “We should kill him.”

Romsca shook her head. “I’d rather not. Makes me feel low, he can’t defend himself.”

“I’m killing my countrymen to rescue a bunch of woodlanders.” Barranca growled. “I feel like scum, and a few more deaths can’t make it any worse.”

He gave the incoherent body a dull look, before turning away with a longsuffering sigh.

Val tossed the keys into the air, catching them deftly with a jingle. “I’ll go give these ta Arashi an’ the funny rabbit.”

“Alone?” Barranca raised an eyebrow.

“Com’on, it’s real close an’ ya’ve gotta go save that otter. I’ll be fine, an’ I’ll tell Arashi we need ta search the cells fer the other otter. An’ question the woodlanders 'bout her.” Val shouldered her bloody katana. “Sides, I got this.”

Romsca sighed, before nodding. “Be careful. Let’s go.”

><><

The dungeons were quite a bit bigger than Romsca had initially imagined, also, they had a lot more levels to them. But then, as they were under a tiered city, it was actually very logical.

The ferret paused at the top of a stone staircase, carefully peering into the hallway it connected with. “All clear.”

She stepped on the second floor, boots making hollow thuds on the stones as she stalked toward the nearest door. Barranca and Rocks were close behind her, and they stopped as she paused with her paw on the metal ring.

“From what the guard said, this should be it .. be ready fer a fight.”

She waited a second, before throwing the door open. It hit the inside wall with a rattling slam, making the guards inside look up in shock, an emotion that was doubled when they saw who it was.

Initially Romsca saw five, but she figured there were probably more lurking about. She let out a roar, leaping for the nearest one, her axe beginning it’s swing as soon as her feet left the ground. The trusty blade slashed through the guard’s leather collar, relieving him of his head before he could blink.

Romsca slid to a stop beside his companion, flipping her axe around and jamming the small blade in the direction of his throat. He ducked, or tried to. The weapon slashed into his face, sending him reeling to the floor with a gurgling cry as his blood splattered everywhere.

Rocks swung his tail into the guard’s chest, the lizard’s long spikes punching through his armor and instantly ending his misery.

The lizard had his teeth in another guard’s throat as he did this, and Barranca was in the act of withdrawing his saber from the last one.

Romsca laid her dripping axe over her shoulder, making a mental note to sharpen it when she got the chance. Also, to procure a sword from somewhere before her next exploit.

They had defiantly found the right set of rooms, from the collection of ruthless torture instruments decorated with dried blood. Romsca felt her stomach sour at the thought of what their uses might be, but there was no sign of the otter, and really no sign he had suffered from them, or that anybeast had in the last few days.

The door at the far end of the room swung open, and two guards rushed in, only to stop in stunned dismay seconds later. Rocks lunged toward them, claws making a loud scratching on the floor as he closed the gap between them terrifyingly fast.

The rats turned to flee, but their fates were sealed as the large dragon plowed them both over at once, shredding them like they weren’t wearing armor at all.

Romsca and Barranca ran up seconds later, stepping rather distastefully over the carnage as Rocks peered into the other room. “I think that’z him, don’t you?”

Romsca looked in, noticing the bloody form chained to a post in the far corner. “Aye, probably.” The three hurried over the unfortunate creature, who was slumped against the post, his head hanging forward over his shoulder. His back and shoulders were a bloody mess, torn flesh and fur mingling disturbingly. Romsca drew one of her knives, starting to cut away at the ropes that bound his arms around the pillar.

Barranca supported his incoherent form as they fell away, carefully laying him face down on the floor stones. “They did him in pretty good ... here I was foolishly hoping this would be easier and he could at least walk.”

“Well he’s definitely the right beast ... looks like a sea otter, don’t he?” Romsca asked as she looked around. “We should find somethin’ ta bandage his back with.”

Barranca huffed, standing and walking toward the door. “I’ll go strip one of the guards. Keep an eye on him.”

Rocks raised one of his eye-ridges, asking, "Do you think bandaging him will really help?"

"Well, at least it might keep the wounds from gettin' worse, if'n ya get my drift." Romsca shrugged.

"Hmm .. I zuppoze. But if he livez to reach to Vale of Dragonz, we can heal him." Rocks stated. "It'z a matter of getting him there."

Romsca sighed, nodding. "Aye."

The otter groaned softly, his eyes fluttering open momentarily. They were light amber, but the only thing that was light about them was their tone. In expression, they were dull and listless, but that was only understandable.

He stared blankly at his two rescuers for a few moments, before mumbling through swollen lips. "Just .. kill me .. I'll never tell."

Rocks shook his head. "Don't be like that, we're here to zave you. A little late, but we had to wait until after zunzet, zee."

The otter's expression showed he didn't see. Romsca sighed. "Look, we ain't here ta hurt ya. We're gonna take ya someplace safe and patch ya up, ok?"

"You're .. a pirate .. and a ... giant .. lizard." He said this as if to contradict what she'd promised, and to be honest, he made a pretty good point.

Barranca walked back into the room, carrying several blood-stained royal blue tunics in his paw. He knelt beside the otter, slicing one of the shirts open lengthwise with his saber and laying it over the beast's mangled back.

Dark splotches quickly began soaking through the fabric as Romsca started slicing another of the tunics into strips for bandages. Barranca spliced another of the garments, putting it atop the first, before grabbing some of the rags from Romsca.

It took a few moments, but they bandaged the otter's back tightly, a process that he fainted from, since moving him likely brought crushing pain.

"How're we gonna get him outa here?" Romsca looked a little pointedly at her uncle as she asked this.

Barranca grumbled under his breath, but grabbed the otter's arms, wrapping them around his neck as he hoisted the beast onto his back. "Hellgates, if you weren't my niece. I'm only doing this to save my own neck from a bunch of lizards."

Romsca nodded. "Thanks uncle. Let's get back ta the others."

They hurried out of the room, past the mangled guards, into the first chamber and past the now naked corpses of the first rats they'd fought. The otter's legs and rudder trailed lifelessly behind Barranca, and the stoat grumbled something about 'indignity' and 'madness' as they walked down the hallway toward the staircase leading to the lower levels.

They made it to the bottom of the staircase intersecting with the hallway leading to the cells, before they met another guard. These two cannoned around the corner, desperation in their eyes, and essentially tripped over Rocks.

The lizard staggered a little as the one rat tumbled into Romsca, and the other crashed into the stairs, narrowly missed Barranca .. mostly because he’d clumsily sidestepped. Rocks wheeled around and grabbed the stunned guard in his jaws, shaking him ravenously.

Romsca fell against the wall, the ratguard half collapsing on top of her. Out of instinct and habit, she lashed out with a hard right. Her clenched paw connected with the bottom of his lower jaw, making his head snap back with an audible crack.

His surprised eyes lost all their interest, rolling up in his head as he tipped over backwards, crumpling to the floor.

Romsca pushed her elbows against the wall, standing again. “They musta found somethin’ we left .. quick ta the cells, a’fore it’s too late!”

She ran out of the alcove the staircase sat in and into the dimly lit hallway, noticing the crumpled body farther down it. Rocks and Barranca were close behind, the latter grumbling, “That looks like Val’s work ... why can’t she clean up after herself better? Leave a body directly out in the open?”

He sounded beyond exasperated and bordering on furious. “Somebeast drag that guard out of plain sight!”

Romsca hurried to do so as Rocks shoved open the door leading into the cells. She grabbed the dead rat by the foot, dragging him backwards as she sighed, “At least the Monitors are all on patrol above ground .. I guess.”

“Just pray we aren’t discovered and they aren’t alerted to our presence.” Barranca snapped as he repositioned the otter against his shoulders.

Romsca dropped the body in the hall outside the cells ... the dungeons were designed peculiarly, as if more corridors had been added onto what had originally existed. This made their floor plan somewhat chaotic, and Romsca was glad they didn’t have to explore them more, as she could imagine becoming lost would be quite simple.

Rocks was standing by the particular door that opened into the corridor of cells their companions had last been in, and he hissed softly. “Zzzzh ... lizzen ... that’z not them.”

Romsca joined the lizard, listening to the hectic but fairly quiet conversation going on inside.

“What are we gonna do? The general’s gonna murder us .. if she don’t, Ublaz will!”

“I know, shut up! I sent those two guards fer help ok? We sit tight til it comes. Whoever did this can’t be far, but we need reinforcements ta take ‘em out.”

“I hope yer right.”

Rocks looked up at Romsca. “We zhould deal with them zo they can’t zpread the word.”

The ferret inhaled softly, drawing one of her knives. “Aye. I’ll throw this inta one as soon as ya open the door, then we charge in an’ overwhelm ‘em.”

Barranca grumbled. “Make it fast .. I can’t help you much, not with him.”

Rocks waited one second, before plowing the door open. Romsca let herself see just enough to get a rough aiming point, and flung the knife in at the nearest unfortunate. The rat ducked, but it sank into the side of his jaw and he fell to the ground with a strangled scream.

Rocks and Romsca stood frozen for a second .. there were a lot more guards than they’d originally anticipated. Up until this point, they’d only faced pairs, maybe five or seven, but there were at least twelve gathered in this corridor.

They stared back, and Romsca suddenly pulled the door shut with a slam, closing it in their faces and bolting it. Pandemonium ensued seconds later, as the order came from inside the cells. “Break down the door! Git ta it!”

Romsca ran to the next corridor of cells, pulling the door open. “This way!”

Barranca and Rocks ran in, and Romsca pulled it shut as the sounds of the other door starting to splinter could be heard. Boots and claws thudded and skittered on the stones as the three bolted down the nearly pitch black hall toward the bit of light at the other end that was coming from the next horizontal corridor.

“Hellgates, that’s torn it!” Barranca snarled as they skidded to a stop in front of the door leading out. He yanked it open and they stumbled into the outer hallway.

“Wait ‘til they realize one a the doors to their corridor ain’t locked!” Romsca growled. “Quick, get ta the escape tunnel!”

Arashi appeared out of the dimness ahead, gasping, “There you are!”

Rocks skidded to a stop as there was a crash and the ratguards exploded into the hall.

“What are ya doin?” Romsca yelled at him, but he wasn’t listening. He launched himself at the guards, meeting them head on and smashing viciously into their first rank.

Arashi helped Barranca drag the otter into the escape tunnel, as Rocks wreaked amazing havoc, tearing, ripping, and crushing everything in his path. Romsca stood still in indecision ... she got the notion that any help she might offer would only get in the way.

The lizard threw himself into a spin, his powerful tail knocking the last of the rats over, impaling one instantly. Rocks whirled all the way around, pouncing on the last remaining guards and tearing into them with shocking power. One of them thrust his trident into the dragon’s face, a blow that was deflected, leaving the beast with just enough time left to scream.

Rocks tore into him, ripping his claws into his face and neck, before stumbling to a stop. Romsca stared at the wake of destruction laying broken behind him as he turned around, his entire body splattered in blood. He hurried back, his gait fumbling.

“Are ya alright?” Romsca asked quickly, and he nodded breathlessly.

She noticed the small gash running across the bridge of his nose, as well as a nasty rip on his right forefoot. “I’m fine .. ztupid ratz got me a couple timez, but they’re dead. Don’t worry about it .. it’z not like it hurtz.”

His eyes told a bit of a different story, but Romsca wasn’t one to argue about how much pain other beasts .. especially lizards .. could tolerate. She nodded and ducked into the tunnel, and he followed closely.

><><

Lutran struggled through the dark water, paws clenched around the beast Ublaz had tried to murder. The otter was an incredibly powerful swimmer, but whatever this creature had been weighted down with was taxing him.

His thickly webbed back paws lashed out through the sea water, and its natural buoyancy was trying to force them to the surface, but the weight was trying to drag them back down. Lutran could feel his paws straining against letting go, and he swam steadily upward.

A slow burning settled into the muscles in his shoulders, and his progress slowed ... he almost wanted to let go. Could he do this? Was it worth one beast? A beast his only connection to was hatred for Ublaz?

Suddenly a force was beneath him, shoving Lutran and his burden to the surface. They broke into the cool night air, water splashing all around them, and Lutran gasped in a breath. “Thanks Firelight.”

“Just help me get them to shore ... get off me and spare my back!” The horse ground the words out, straining to keep his head above water, the weighted creature draped over him.

Lutran slipped off him into the sea, keeping next to him and holding the unfortunate beast on. They struggled toward shore, small waves buffeting them from all sides .. the sea was slightly choppy thanks to the steady night breeze.

The infernal fog hid the shore, and Lutran got the nasty thought they might be headed the wrong way, out to sea rather than the desired opposite.

There was a sudden jolt as Firelight’s hooves touched the seabed, and his burden slipped off him, disappearing into the shallow waves. Lutran ducked under, grabbing them again and digging his own paws into the silt as he struggled to drag the beast out of the surf.

Firelight joined him in his task, and they slowly made their way up the pebbly beach, out of the waves and onto dry land.

Lutran let himself fall to his knees, breathing heavily for a few seconds as he glared at the heavy weight on the thick chain trailing from the beast’s webbed footpaw. It was an otter. Lutran’s nostrils flared in anger against Ublaz, and all pirates.

Firelight nudged the beast with his muzzle, and they coughed, twitching slightly. “Well, she’s alive.”

The beast was female, upon a closer look, but that wasn’t what made Lutran stare at her. It was her flowing golden hair and the clear mark of Holt Lutra running down her shoulder. This was impossible.

But it was her. It was, it had to be. She didn’t look much like the frail little maiden who had always struggled to keep up with him, what with a fairly sturdy frame and a slowly bleeding gash across her nose and cheek. Still, it was her.

Even the armor she wore was familiar .. it was Aqua’s, Lutran knew it. He slowly crawled to her side, pausing as she suddenly went into a violent fit of hacking, her eyes flying open. She rolled over, getting her elbows beneath her as she coughed, her entire body trembling.

Her hair hid her face as she gasped in air, sharply and almost painfully.

“Grath?” Lutran’s voice was soft .. even insecure.

She froze, turning her head and meeting his gaze with familiar emerald eyes as she inhaled shakily, not saying a word. All she could do was stare at him in shocked silence, expression half questioning and half terrified.

She finally spoke, voice breaking. “H ... how ..?”

Lutran shook his head .. honestly, he wasn’t sure. He’d been so angry about the pirates he’d barely paid attention to the Abbot, only enough to pick up the beast claimed Grath was alive at Redwall. “How are you here?”

“How are you .. alive?” She countered, wide-eyed. “I watched him kill you!”

“I ..... what?” Lutran suddenly realized the absurdity of this statement.

“His crystal ball .. he had some sort of magic, and he made me watch.” Grath’s voice was flat, half stunned.

She slowly blinked, asking, “I’m not dead? You’re not?”

She looked lost, confused, and Lutran suddenly wrapped his arms around her, closing his eyes as a foreign wetness gathered in them. “I never thought I’d see you again. Ever.”

Grath hesitated, then buried her face in his shoulder, crying a little. “I thought .. you were dead! How?”

She suddenly pulled away so she could look at him. “Coral ... Marine ..?”

Lutran felt his heart sink, and he shook his head, finding he couldn’t say the words. Grath let her paws fall away, and she stared at the ground silently, a tear dripping from the eye her hair didn’t cover. “They’re really gone then.”

“Yea.”

Firelight broke the silence by scuffing a hoof. “Ahem .. not to interrupt, but your father will be worried.”

Grath started upon noticing the horse for the first time, then she turned to Lutran, gasping, “Father? He’s alive?”

Lutran looked surprised, then shook his head. “No .. not our actual father .. look, a lot’s happened.”

Grath’s eyes suddenly widened, and she looked around quickly, asking, “Where are we?”

“Outside the city wall.” Firelight was the one who replied.

“My friends!” Grath sounded dismayed. “Ublaz said he would kill them .. I have to help them! I got them into this mess!”

Lutran shook his head. “You came up with the idea to go into the city?”

“Look, I thought it wouldn’t ... I mean .. I just thought it’d work.” Grath flattened her ears. “I didn’t think it would turn out this bad .. it’s not like I even know what I’m doing. But I have to help them!”

Lutran shook his head with a sigh. “I don’t know what we can do ..”

Grath grabbed his arm, forcing him to meet her gaze. “I’ll never forgive myself! I have to try!”

“Where are they?” Despite himself, he consented to asking.

“The dungeons!”

Lutran groaned. “I’d like to help .... but I can’t! I just wanted to find you ...”

“You’d do it for me, but not them?” Grath sounded almost accusing, and Lutran felt his heart sink. He’d forgotten how persuasive his sister could be.

“No ... that’s not it .. I just ... can’t.” Lutran looked down. “We’ll all be killed. I just saved you from being executed ... do you really want to go through that again?”

She shuddered visibly, muttering, “No. But I can’t just leave them.”

“You’re determined, aren’t you?” Lutran wasn’t sure how this would work ... he hadn’t thought any of it over very much in the first place ... but there was something about Grath he couldn’t say no to .. he’d never been able to.

“Yes.”

He groaned. “Alright, fine. We’ll do what we can ... but first I have to get this weight off your leg.”

><><

Romsca’s world consisted of flickering firelight amidst darkness and pounding pawsteps echoing eerily in the underground passageway. Arashi had ahold of the torch .. inconveniently, the only torch. True to his word, Xzaris had waited in the tunnel through the course of the jailbreak, but now Romsca found herself leading him again.

Why had she been so determined to bring him in the first place? She’d put him in mortal danger.

Her boots slammed repeatedly against the crumbling floor stones, and she forced her mind to think only of the next step. There was no time for regret. These creatures were hers to protect, and loosing even one was not an option. She could only pray Ublaz hadn’t yet turned his Monitors loose to hunt them.

Val fell into step with her, asking, “How are we gonna to make it ta the bay? Ain’t the monitors after us?”

“I donno, and run like Hellgates!” Romsca replied shortly.

The young squirrel maiden bounded easily next to them, dressed in a bloodstained ratguard’s tunic. Arashi was ahead of them all, while Rocks brought up the rear, hobbling slightly as splashes of blood from his leg marked his path.

Barranca still had the otter hanging from his shoulders, and Clecky and the spotted mouse were dragging the black fox. The two shrews looked like small ratguards, they’d scavenged so much of their armor.

Arashi suddenly slowed to smash through the bamboo covering the mouth of the tunnel, making more of an exit for the others. The two Zhanshi that had traveled into the city with them were mere shadows in the darkness, and they stalked into the open, one asking, “Are theze the onez we came for?”

Clecky looked up from his task of dragging the black fox, panting, “You can jolly well bet your life they are!”

Romsca looked down as the squirrel stopped beside her, asking, “Where’s Grath? We can’t leave her!”

The ferret felt a pang of regret run deep, and it made her bare her fangs. “I donno, and there’s nothin’ I can do at this point. If I don’t git ya outa this city, yer all gonna die. Sides .... I hate ta say it, but I get the feelin’ she’s already dead.”

There was a stunned silence for a second, before the squirrel gasped, “She can’t be! You’ve got to be lying! You’re lying!”

“I ain’t!” Romsca snarled back. “What do ya really think happened? She got dragged outa the cells in fronta ya, from what I heard .. Ublaz took her out an’ executed her. It’s too late fer me ta stop, even if ratguards an’ Monitors weren’t a problem!”

The squirrel fell silent, brown eyes glittering with unshed tears in the dim light. Romsca looked away with a heavy sigh, trying not to ponder her actions. There was no time for regret.

Rocks stumbled out into the open, leg glistening darkly, and Romsca wondered how much blood lizards could lose before they lost consciousness. Of course, she doubted all of it was his. The two Zhanshi bolted to his side, one hissing, “Prinze, what iz thiz?”

“It’z nothing!” Rocks snapped in their faces. “Juzt run!”

He hobbled past them all, and Barranca followed as quickly as he could. Romsca took a last glance at the tunnel behind them, before hurrying after her uncle. The group made it out of the overgrown garden and onto the street running by it without hearing the sound of another living creature. In fact, they made it down several streets, before one of the Zhanshi slid to a stop, arching its graceful neck and flicking a fin-like ear. “I hear them.”

Romsca stopped and Xzaris bumped into her. “I don’t hear anythin’, but the point is …”

Xzaris pinned his ears. “No, he’s right .. somethin’s after us.”

“How would ya know?” As she said it, Romsca realized it had probably come off wrong, but she was curious.

“It’s a darkness .. I can’t describe it .. just run!”

Arashi nodded, and took off again, the others following in her wake. Val ran beside Romsca and Xzaris, asking, “What do ya mean by all that?”

“I can’t explain this!” Xzaris looked rather disturbed, and he shuddered subtly. “I just feel that darkness is chasin’ us .. it ain’t normal! ”

He gritted his teeth. “I ain’t just blind, I’m goin’ mad too!”

Romsca didn’t say anything, just allowed her brows to crease even more. She simply couldn’t focus on what Xzaris was experiencing .. she could not be distracted, not now.

The two Zhanshi and Rocks seemed effected too, they kept looked over their shoulders as they ran, and Rocks hissed, “I can feel their feet in the ground .. zo many feet! I do not even want to zee that many feralz!”

Val pinned her ears as a sudden screech rang out, and Barranca gasped, “They found our trail! He’s got the Monitor’s hunting us .. we can’t outrun them, we just can’t!”

Romsca flattened her ears, yelling, “Don’t give up, just run! Don’t think about what’s after us!”

They bolted out of an alleyway into a wider street, and Val grabbed Romsca’s free arm. “Horse!”

Romsca saw what she meant, a dull brown horse hitched to a cart outside the open back door of a shop. In the warm glow spilling from the abode, she could see some boxes sitting, ready to be loaded. Perfect.

“Quick, put the wounded beasts in the back!”

The spotted mouse interrupted, “But that’s not ours! Can we do that?”

Romsca turned on him. “Do ya think I give a care? Get in or get eaten!”

Val ran around and grabbed the animal’s bridal, as Barranca quickly dragged the semi-conscious otter up into the cart, and Clecky and the mouse did the same for their friend.

“Hey! What’re ya doin’ with me …”

The cart owner had run out in dismay, a dirk in his paw. Arashi moved like lightning, disarming him with a powerful slash and backing him against the wall, rapier tip hovering over his chest. “Sorry, we need it more than ye.”

She pulled her satchel off her shoulder with a single paw, tossing it at his feet. “This should more than cover it. I advise too, that ye get inside. Ublaz’s Monitor’s are after us in full force.”

Val hopped into the driver’s seat, dragging Xzaris up beside her as she grabbed the reigns and Romsca vaulted up beside them. Arashi kept her rapier pointed at the stunned cart owner as she backed up, grabbing the side of the cart and jumping in.

Val smacked the reigns down on the horse, yelling, “Yah! Move it!”

The animal was less than cooperative, breaking into a reluctant trot.

“Make it go faster than that!” Barranca yelled at the fox, as the first Monitor bolted from the alley they’d earlier run down, sliding to a stop as it saw them.

The two Zhanshi bolted forward, snapping razor-filled jaws at the horse’s ankles. With a frightened half-rear, it took off like a shot.

Romsca grabbed Xzaris and the cart, barely stopping both of them from falling over backwards.

“Ayiiii!” Val let out a surprised squeak, gripping the reigns tightly as her red hair whipped out behind her and she leaned forward, narrowing her eyes. The vixen pulled hard on the right reign, as they neared an intersection of two roads, and they swerved onto the wider of the two, nearly running into a mounted beast, who yelled a few choice curses in their direction.

However he broke off the next moment as Rocks and the Zhanshi ran past him, an wheeled his horse around with a cry of dismay as at least ten Monitors rounded the corner, more and more coming behind them.

“Faster horse! Faster!” Val screamed, slapping the reigns across its back relentlessly.

The animal obliged to the very best of its ability .. it could hear and smell the lizards hunting it, and it was practically mad with fear.

Romsca looked over her shoulder, feeling the blood drain from her face as she saw just how many Monitors were after them. She turned to face in the direction they were heading, seeing the city spread out before them in the pre-dawn darkness, lights from shops and houses illuminating the scene.

They were nearing the bay, but the streets twisted horribly this way and that, leaving no swift path. Val gritted her teeth and turned the horse onto one of the main thoroughfares. The animal’s withers and chest were slick with sweat, and foam dripped from its mouth, the whites of its eyes showing vividly.

It hadn’t started to falter yet, but it was only a matter of time, and not much of that. Romsca tried not to think about the consequences.

Val pulled forcibly on the left reign as they dashed around a corner, the cart wheels momentarily skidding across the paving stones, their metal rims scraping the stones ominously. The horse strained against its harness, nostrils flaring as it struggled to run even faster.

Sampetra was waking up, even if the sky was still dark. Shipbuilders, merchants, and fisherbeasts had no choice but to rise before the dawn, and as the cart neared the bay, they encountered multiple beasts on their way to work.

These creatures threw themselves out of the way, some cursing in their direction before they fully assessed the situation, others simply bolting at the sight of the many lizards.

Romsca looked back again, noticing Rocks was falling behind, and while she couldn’t make out his expression in the darkness, she could imagine it was one of pain.

There was a horrible jolt as the cart flew over the dip created by the street they were on and the lower set shore road. The wheels smashed down onto the rough cobblestones, and it was all Romsca could do not to fall forward onto the horse’s flying hind legs. Val cast a glance behind them, urging the animal to greater speeds, even if it was at its limit.

They flew along the shore road, cart rocking somewhat due to the condition of the wheels, which could not be anything good. Early morning or not, the mist was still thick, especially here. For a moment, their pursuers were lost in the fog, and Romsca stared behind them, trying to catch a glimpse of the many lizards.

Before she could turn back around, there was a sudden scream, followed by a jolt so hard she flew forward off the cart. In midair, Romsca twisted herself around, throwing her forepaws out in front of her to shield her face. She hit the pavement so hard she felt the skin and fur of her palms rip in spite of the bindings over them.

Pain instantly surged up her arms, and she had to wonder if she’d fractured her wrists on top of the bloody mess her paws had to be. She wheeled around, expecting the cart to be bearing down upon her, but it instead was half overturned and shattered, the horse lying sprawled on the ground, a ratguard’s trident lodged in its chest to the base, blood staining its smashed pole.

Romsca struggled to her feet, yanking her axe off her back, despite the wetness running from her torn paws and down her axe-pole. The fresh, icy tingling of the Flowers was already dulling the pain, though it still hurt to hold her weapon. The Zhanshi and Rocks bolted up as Val’s voice rang out from nearby.

“Ahhge! Help me somebeast ... can’t breathe ... stuck!”

Romsca saw the problem about the same moment as the ratguards that had caused it. Val was pinned under the horse, or at least half of her .. and by this time, they were completely hemmed in by rats and lizards.

However, she had an equally as pressing problem. “Val! I’m comin’!”

She ran to the vixen’s side, noticing Xzaris getting up off the ground, blood staining his shoulder. The other occupants of the cart had formed somewhat of a circle, the three lizards facing the Monitors while the furbeasts who could stand faced the Ratguard.

Romsca grabbed the dead horse’s flank with her still healing paws, straining to lift it enough for Val to drag herself away. The muscles in her neck and back screamed in protest, and she clenched her jaw, forcing herself to focus only on lifting the massive weight ... she had to lift it!

“Grrrrhh .. move! Val, try an’ slide out!”

Clashes of steel rang out nearby, as well as a hair-raising screech Romsca recognized as one of the Zhanshi. Val spoke in a half sob of pain. “I can’t ... not enough ...!”

“Try! It’s slippin’!” Romsca roared over the noise, and against her failing grip. A set of paws, one white and one golden, slid under the horse and lifted with her, causing it to move upwards.

Val dug her claws into the cracks of the cobblestones, dragging her badly bruised and slowly bleeding legs from beneath the horse.

Romsca cast a glance at her helper, but he was staring at the horse he had almost singlehandedly lifted about a foot from the ground. Romsca’s tired paws fell away, but the mouse didn’t let go instantly .. before he suddenly let go, and the corpse thudded to the stones.

It took a second, but Romsca forced herself to look away from the phenomenon she’d just witnessed. “Val!”

The vixen struggled to stand, exclaiming, “ .. Fine .. Aarge!”

Her legs buckled beneath her as she screamed a little, and she fell face down on the road. Tears glittered in her eyes as she whimpered against the horrible pain Romsca guessed she was in. She didn’t have time to help Val up or drag her anywhere less dangerous, as she saw steel flash in the corner of her eye .. trident prongs, aimed directly at her.

Romsca dropped to one knee and drew the dirk in her belt in the same second. The ratguard’s trident clipped her ear, and the beast stumbled against her, unbalanced as his weapon stuck only air. Romsca lashed out, stabbing her knife into his ribs, and he gasped, collapsing on top of her. She threw him to the ground viciously, withdrawing her dirk in the same movement.

She was just in time to see two guards charge Xzaris, and she threw herself forward with a cry, even though she knew she could never reach him in time. He was going to die .. again .. all thanks to her.

Her boot caught on one of the horse’s legs, and she sprawled to the ground, jerking her head up the next second, in time to see the impossible happen.

Xzaris fell into a perfect stance, drawing his two dragon knives at once and lunging for one of the rats. He dodged the trident shaft, plunging his extended weapon into his attacker’s chest. Moving with all his normal grace, he sidestepped, allowing the other guard’s trident to sweep by him, and slashed the rat’s throat open.

Already dead, the beast fell to the ground, blood pooling on the stones, and Romsca couldn’t even comprehend what had just taken place.

What had she just seen? And how? How could this be?

Xzaris’s stance broke, he took a stunned step backwards, stumbling over one of the corpses and fell on his back, expression of shock engraved on his features.

“Give yerselves up, by order of the Emperor .. Gahh!”

Romsca turned toward the commotion, to see Shui standing over the dead guard, and the rest of the rats quickly backing up at the sight of the dragon and the group of others behind her. The Monitors were growing impatient with the ratguard, and one of them charged Shui.

She threw herself to the side, hissing loudly, her blade-like scales standing erect. Rocks lunged for her attacker, a low growl rumbling from his chest. He plowed the smaller Monitor over, rolling it onto its side and tearing his claws into its belly before it could retaliate.

The ferals tightened their circle around them at this, and the Zhanshi faced them, growling threateningly. Shui looked over at Barranca, hissing, “You furbeaztz zure know how to get in trouble.”

Arashi groaned. “We were ambushed .. can ye help us?”

“What zort of queztion iz that? Juzt get your wounded and be ready to run. Quickly!” The lizard swished her tail impatiently.

Xzaris was back on his feet, so Romsca hurried for Val. She grabbed her axe, laying by the horse, and slung it over her back. Her friend was struggling to sit up. “Can’t .. move! I ain’t even got .. feelin’ in me legs ..”

Romsca shook her head. “I’ve got ya .. we’ll fix this as soon as we get back. It’s gonna work out.”

She honestly didn’t believe herself, but she got one of Val’s arms over her shoulders, lifting the smaller fox from the ground. They were pinned down .. how long before reforcments arrived? Or worse, Ublaz himself?

Shui’s voice snapped through her thoughts. “You better be ready .. we need to break their defenzez, now!”

“We’re ready!” Arashi’s voice was the one that answered her. Romsca didn’t have time to look around and make sure that was true. And honestly, she couldn’t do anything but stare at the chaos that ensued seconds later. Shui did the shocking, terrifying, and all to gory act first ... how she did it, Romsca wasn’t even going to try and decipher.

The dragon opened her mouth and breathed .. no, spewed something in the nearest three Monitors’ faces.

They melted. They downright melted.

To be perfectly accurate, their frills went first then the rest of their heads. Like resilient wax over a slow fire, only it was scales, flesh, bones, and a lot of oddly discolored blood amid screeching and thrashing.

All of a sudden, Romsca seriously thought she was going to wretch. Val did.

But it sure did the trick. Even the Monitors backed away, and some actually ducked their heads and bolted. As for the ratguards, the ones that weren’t frozen in shock took off for the far sides of the city, too desperate to even scream for reinforcements.

Romsca was only frozen for a second, then she chased after Shui, half carrying, half dragging Val, and fighting the insane urge to laugh madly.

Who knew Monitors could melt?

How easy was that? As sobering as it was to think the Zhanshi had such a horrifying power, Romsca had to admit it made them freakishly awesome.

Shui ran down a nearby pier, leaping off it and vanishing beneath the water with such grace she made a small splash in comparison to her size. The other Zhanshi also ran for the water, leaping into it and disappearing from sight.

Three boats sat waiting for them at the end of the dock, and Rocks stumbled into the largest one. Romsca knelt at the edge of the pier, setting Val next to him in the vessel. “Keep an eye on her, will ya?”

The lizard smiled somewhat crookedly, and nodded. Romsca stood quickly, wheeling around and nearly running into the spotted mouse. She didn’t even know his name, but she was extremely grateful to him and his impossible strength. She’d have to thank him later.

The Monitors had resumed the chase, at least the bolder ones, and Xzaris was in the rear, making him dangerously close to the lizards. But he wasn’t tripping. It was like he could see again .. almost.

Romsca dodged around her uncle and the otter he’d resumed carrying, running for Xzaris and the Monitors right behind him.

“Xzaris, grab me paw!” She yelled this out of habit, forgetting his disability, but he seemed to know exactly where she was.

He grabbed her arm as she wheeled around .. the dock shook from the heavy lizards on it, but Romsca refused to look back at them. “Jump!” They were coming to the end of the dock, and Xzaris did exactly as she said. Time slowed for a second as the two fell through empty air, landing with a shock in one of the boats, a small skiff.

As was to be expected, Xzaris fell back on his hunches, slamming into the side, and Romsca fell flat on her face. Before she even had time to lift her head, there was a jolt and an incredible pull of force as the Zhanshi started pulling the boat out to see.

“Ahhhge!” One of the shrews was clearly not expecting this type of ride.

Romsca sat up shakily, looking around. Aside from her and Xzaris, the two shrews, Barranca and the otter, the squirrel maiden, and Clecky were in the boat. Romsca could only guess and hope the others had made it into different boats, as the fog they sped through had swallowed them.

The shadows of the imperial fleet swept by them, sometimes frighteningly close. Still, the Zhanshi knew what they were doing as they weaved the small boat through the shipyard, cutting a swift path in the fog, one that vanished even as it was made.

Romsca let out a sigh of momentary relief, allowing herself to relax slightly, until Barranca blurted out, “What’s that??”

She snapped her head up, staring at the spot where they’d moored Waveworm. At least five shadowy shapes sat around it, other ships, silent in the fog. The boat slowed, and the several Zhanshi pulling it surfaced, looking warily at the strange scene before them.

The other two boats slid from the fog, stopping nearby, and Shui suddenly popped her head out of the water. “What’z going on ... why are there other zhipz?”

Barranca was tense. “It’s a trap! Ublaz hemmed us in!”

Romsca leaned forward, squinting in the darkness in hopes of getting a better look, when a Zhanshi popped out of the water nearby. When he spoke, she recognized him as Jian. “Hey, why did you ztop?”

“There are zhipz zurrounding uz!” Shui sounded exasperated. “How can you not zee that?”

Jian cast a glance behind them, before raising an eyebrow. “You mean thoze? Thoze are mine, I ztole them fair and zquare.”

Clecky looked blank. “Wait .. what’d you say chap?”

Shui didn’t give her brother a chance to answer. “Jian! Thiz iz a rezcue, not a raid! You’ll make father angry! It’z bad enough that they zaw uz in the zity, and I had to melt zome feralz!”

Jian frowned instantly. “Are you ok?”

“I’m fine!” The dragon snapped, pinning her fin-ears. “No we need out .. fazt! And we don’t need more zhipz!”

Jian grumbled something that sounded rather like ‘We alwayz need more zhipz ..’ but he nodded begrudgingly, grabbing the towing rope from his sister and diving forward.

Romsca grabbed the side of the boat as it lurched forward again, Jian towing them the rest of the way to the Waveworm. The small skiff bumped against the hull of the larger vessel with a hollow thunk, and Barranca reached up, grabbing one of the ropes hanging over the rail and holding their boat in place.

Shui climbed up the side of the ship without the slightest show of difficulty, her long claws giving her amazing traction. She bounded fluidly over the railing, shimmering tail vanishing behind it. Moments later, the rope ladder clacked down the side, swinging dangerously close to Clecky’s head.

The hare ducked as the last rung clipped his ears, and he yelped, grabbing them. The squirrel grabbed the ladder first, bounding up it and over the railing with a flick of her furry tail.

The two shrews were next, then Clecky. Romsca climbed it next, hoisting herself over the railing and turning to help Xzaris onboard. Barranca was last, and had the worst time of it as he had the otter they’d rescued draped over one shoulder .. who admittedly was almost larger than him.

Romsca grabbed her uncle’s paw, helping him on deck, and Clecky pulled the otter from his shoulders, supporting him. “Where do we put this chap, wot?”

“The berth’s below decks .. look, I’ll take ya there.” Romsca stated. “Do ya need help carryin’ him?”

“That’d be much appreciated ..” The hare nodded quickly.

Romsca grabbed the otter’s legs, tucking his heavy, dragging tail over one arm. “See the ladder ta the hold? We’re headed that way.”

It took them a little to get the unconscious beast into the hold, and Romsca found herself respecting Barranca’s strength not a little. She backed into the door of the sleeping quarters, shoving it open with her shoulder.

Romsca half regretted not bothering to clean this part of the ship, as personal belongings of the deceased crew were still scattered exactly as they’d left them. It had a cluttered .. and haunting effect.

The two hoisted the otter into one of the hammocks, and Romsca grabbed a lantern from the wall, setting about lighting it. She hung the wane flame on a hook from the ceiling, noticing how pale the otter looked.

“He looks bad … he’s alive still, ain’t he?”

Clecky looked closer, nodding, “He’s still breathing .. you wouldn’t happen ta know healin’, capt’n?”

“Me? I’ma capt’n, not a doctor ....” She paused, slowly reaching up and touching her hair.

A sick feeling settled in her gut .. because she knew what she could do. What she should do. Honestly, what she deserved to do. But could she really do it?

She had seen what the ratguards had done to that poor beast’s back .. all of a sudden she felt the phantom presence of Lask’s claws ripping into her, shredding her .. mangling her beyond all normal repair and leaving her in unmatched agony. To use her hair on this creature would mean something around the same level of pain .. and did she want to die again?

No, she didn’t. She never wanted to feel that crushing, sickening, nightmarish feeling again .. of falling into smothering darkness unlike any other.

“Captain? Are you alright, you look sick, wot?”

Romsca shook her head to clear it, blinking hard and turning her gaze upon Clecky, which upon reflection, was probably wild and near insane in appearance.

He took a slight step back, asking, “Are you jolly well alright?”

“I .. I’m fine.” Romsca took a shaky breath, standing straight again. “It’s nothin’. I ain’t no healer. Ya better ask ‘round an’ see if there is one.”

She turned on her heel, stalking out of the berth, her fists clenched. She couldn’t do it .. nobeast could expect her to die every time some creature was injured .. or even died. That wasn’t her concern!

But this is. The nasty little voice in her head taunted her.

You kidnapped the abbot. They would have never come here if it weren’t for that. So you’re directly responsible for this ... right the wrong.

Romsca froze in her tracks. Ignasa had said that. Who was talking in her head .. him .. or just herself.

“No .. no, I can’t do it .. I won’t! Ya can’t make me .. nobeast can make me!” She glared up at the ceiling, baring her teeth, before she realized how she’d just defied a deity .. one kind enough to let her live again.

She pinned her ears, shrinking back a little, and almost blurting, ‘I didn’t mean it!’, before she caught herself again. Defying a deity was bad enough, but lying on top of that?

Because she did mean it. She meant every word.

Romsca clenched a paw around the loose strand of her hair and ducking her head as she hurried out of the hold. Everything felt wrong and terrifying on so many levels, Romsca shoved it bitterly into the back of her mind with the rest of her transgressions and unresolved nightmares, to be considered at a later date. She could deal with it after they were away from here.

Still, it nibbled angrily at the back of her head, screaming to be noticed right away. It was a selfish sentiment, but Romsca was actually glad when she met Barranca at the ladder leading above decks, carrying Val. At least it gave her something else to think about.

“Come on .. I can sit on deck ...” For her words, Val’s voice was clearly strained, and Romsca shook her head.

“Ya better lay down fer now. A horse just fell on ya .. trust me, once the adrenaline wears off you’ll thank me.”

The fox’s ears drooped as she sighed. “I guess it’d be kinda nice.”

“S’what I thought.” Romsca nodded. “Just take it easy. I know that feelin’.”

Barranca brushed past her, stating, “I think I might lay down myself. I’m still feeling that cart crash and I’m tired of carrying beasts around.”

“Ok ..” Romsca sighed as he walked down the hall, and she noticed he was limping slightly for the first time that night.

“Romsca? I think the dragons is ready ta move out.” Xzaris’s vioce rang from above decks.

She sighed inwardly, hurrying up the ladder. There was something to do, and that would keep her focus off of the horrible voice in her head, saying she could heal that otter, and that she should. That it was her duty, her just reward.

She climbed onto the deck, moving to allow Arashi and the spotted mouse to pass, as they were carrying the limp black fox. Romsca stopped at the sight of Jian and Shui in an argument.

“You have to put thoze back!”

“Come on, not all of them! It took zo much time to zteal them all!”

“It’z too obviouze! We already were zeen by ratguardz and feralz alike, thiz will make them even more knowing of what we can do!”

Jian pouted … it was a strange sight on a dragon, but it was exactly what he did. “But zizter ..”

“No! No butz, juzt put them back!”

“All my zhipz? Can’t I keep two .. or five?”

Shui pinned her ears in exasperation. “Thiz izn’t a joke Jian, we need to get out of here!”

“Juzt three?” Her brother pressed.

“Arrge! Two, and the zmaller onez that are fazter to pull! Now move your zcaly tail and fix your mezz!”

He sighed, but headed for the rail and leaped over it. Shui gave Romsca a look, rolling her eyes. “Brotherz. I’m right, yez?”

“I wouldn’t have’a clue.” Romsca shrugged. “But ya sure seemed able ta give ‘im orders.”

Shui snorted. “Jian may be bigger than me, but he came out of hiz egg much later, zo I get the final zay.”

Romsca blinked .. Shui did not look older than Jian in any way. The ferret shook her head moments later, asking, “Ya need me at the wheel?”

“That’z right. We are ready when you are.”

“What about .. him?” Romsca motioned to where Jian had jumped over the railing.

Shui shrugged. “He will get zome of the otherz to help him, and he can explain himzelf to father. Now go zteer and I will tell them to ztart pulling.”

She stalked to the railing and bounded over it, causing a splash. Romsca hurried up the forecastle stairs, walking past Rocks, who was carefully licking the wound on his leg. She took the wheel, looking over at him. “How bad was that?”

The lizard sighed. “Pretty bad .. worze than I zaid. Running didn’t help it either.”

“Will it heal?” Romsca asked, out of both curiosity and politeness. There was a sudden jolt as the ship took off .. but she was getting used to such things.

“It zhould, but I will limp for a few weekz. But that iz nothing new.” Rocks sniffed the wound.

Romsca shook her head. “Ya know, I didn’t think ya could be wounded hardly.”

“Well, that iz true .. our zcalez are thick az zteel .. but I made a ztupid move. I ran ztrait into hiz weapon, and the forze waz to much. It’z not that we can’t be wounded, juzt that it iz hard. Don’t think being hit doezn’t hurt uz though, even if we don’t bleed. Bruizez hurt too.” He sighed.

“Oh.” Honestly, it made sense. Romsca relized she’d never really thought about what a Monitor was feeling .. just the fact that they were so hard to kill.

Xzaris made his way up the steps slowly, stopping nearby, with his paw on the rail. The three were really the only ones on deck, the rest being down in the berth with the wounded beasts. Only Arashi was on deck, standing by the mast and acting as a lookout.

Romsca spoke up, asking a question that had been weighing on her mind since they left dry land. “Xzaris .. what happened back there? Could ya see or somethin’ .. cause it sure looked like ya could.”

Xzaris ran a paw through his long hair, exhaling. “So it weren’t just me.”

He didn’t say anything for a moment, before blurting, “I couldn’t see .. I still can’t! But I .. just knew.”

Romsca was confused. “Huh?”

“I did! I’m goin’ insane Rom .. I knew where those rats was! And even more, it was like …” He stopped abruptly, shuddering the slightest bit.

“It was like what?” Romsca pressed, more than curious now.

“Rom ... I knew what they was thinkin’. I knew what they’d do next. I knew ‘xctly how they’d attack an’ everythin’.”

That was scary. Romsca’s paw tightened on the wheel, but she couldn’t deny it with reason. How else could he have done what he did?

She shook her head. “Ya sure ya can’t see?”

“Ya don’t believe me.” Xzaris sounded even more downtrodden then before the rescue has begun. “I kin tell ya fer sure though .. I’m stone blind. It weren’t somethin’ I saw .. I was jist somethin’ I knew. Like sailin’ is fer ya .. second nature or somethin’.”

“How?” Romsca couldn’t resist asking it.

“That’s what I’d like ta find out.” Xzaris was sarcastic, but he sighed the next second. “It’s not like it really matters though .. it’s gone now. Everythin’s dark again.”

The way he said that, it broke Romsca’s heart. Because it was dark .. everything was. And the light looked far away.

There was silence for awhile, before Romsca muttered, “I failed ya know. I went in there ta rescue the ottermaid ... an’ she’s the one I couldn’t save, a course. Life hates me.”

“Wull .. ya saved the others. They’d a died without ya .. without everybeast who helped.” Xzaris stated.

“It ain’t good enough!” Romsca snapped. “It just ain’t! I let those otters die at Ublaz’s paw when my father ordered me ta save them, and now I let her die too!”

Xzaris scowled a little. “You’ll never fergive yerself fer that, will ya?”

“I don’t deserve ta.” She growled softly. “I deserve ta suffer fer it ferever.”

“I think ya should let it be. Ya did what ya could. Ya’ve always done what ya could.” Xzaris argued.

Romsca looked away. “I didn’t want ta. I thought if’n I made myself remember, I wouldn’t do it twice .. but I just did!”

Xzaris vioce was soft. “Ya know it’s not just ya. It’s not all ‘bout ya either.”

“What?” Romsca was honestly confused.

He looked up. “It’s not all ‘bout ya Rom, it jist ain’t. Think ‘bout that fer awhile. There’s more beasts in this world than ya.”

Xzaris slowly turned, walking down the stairs as Romsca tried to make sense of what he’d said .. and more importantly, what he’d meant. Of course it wasn’t about her, it was about fulfilling her promise to her father.

No .. that ultimately was about her. Well it was about doing something to cover the pain of the first time she failed. No .. about protecting her friends .. so she could keep them alive. So she could try again. So she could do better.

Suddenly, she let her ears droop. Was she really that self-obsessed? Was everything she did just a lie to make herself feel better about her true motives? Did her friends think she was selfish .. did Xzaris think that?

But I’m not! I’m not selfish .. what I do is for others .. right?

However, looking at it in another light, maybe it had been a lie all along.

Her first conviction about the wounded otter came back in full force .. she should save him .. she should have to! Wasn’t that right, after all? Wasn’t that at least right? Or was she just kidding herself about all of this?”

Romsca looked down at the wheel, sighing heavily. It had been a long night .. and it wasn’t anywhere near done.

><><


“I’m sorry sire .. it was me own fault.” Romsca stood before Lord Isan, who was standing on the magnificent stairway leading into the dragon’s palace. The woodlanders stood huddled together, staring wide-eyed at their surroundings, and at the many curious lizards staring at them.

Night was day in the Vale of Dragons, so while it was still very early morning, most of the lizards had yet to retire as the sun wasn’t warming their beds. The wide path leading to the sprawling city on the cave wall was lit with flickering torches, bathing the furbeasts in firelight.

Isan cocked his head, and Romsca hung hers, not wanting to know what horrible punishment was in store. “I failed. I couldn’t save Lutran’s sister, an’ I have no clue where he is.”

Shui broke in. “We did what we could, father. It’z not for lack of trying thiz happened.”

“I do not zee that anyone failed, honeztly.” Isan stated, causing Romsca to look up. “Did anybeazt die?”

Rocks, standing on the other side of Romsca, shook his head. “No, not of our lizardz or fubeaztz .. though there are zeveral woundz. Nothing fatal, though.”

Isan nodded. “And you have brought back ztrange furbeaztz, unlike the piratez .. the onez called woodlanderz? Izn’t that what you zet out to do?”

He looked pointedly at Romsca. She stammered a little. “Well .. yea, but Lutran ..”

“Who iz lord here? Lutran? He doez not give orderz, he iz ztill a young hatchling .. lozt, confuzed, angry, with no wizdom. Lutran doez not order you, I do.”

Isan slowly walked down the palace stairs. “My zon haz much hatred for you. It burnz madly within him and cauzez him to do razh thingz. To zay thingz better left unzaid. But I am not him, and no, I do not yet truzt you, you are a furbeazt of the zity after all, but I do not have that hatred. You have done nothing to me, but now, you have acted to aid one of uz, while he hated you.”

“Ya’d have killed us if I hadn’t.” Romsca stated.

“True.” Isan smiled a little. “But that doez not matter. The fact ztandz. Bezidez, you rezcued livez tonight, you and the otherz. Freindz of Lutran’z zizter. Zo you have done a favor for uz, and I hold you all in better ztanding then when we firzt met.”

“So .. does that mean we get ta live?”

Isan sat down, flicking his fluid tail around his legs. “For now. You muzt do more to become truly truzted, but good iz rewarded with good.”

He looked over at Rocks. “You were clumzy in your attack again, weren’t you?”

The Neishi picked up his wounded leg with a sigh. “Yez.”

Isan shrugged. “Well, have the healerz zee to it along with the other wounded. Pain iz the bezt teacher. Now. I am glad the mizzion waz zomewhat zucezzful, but we muzt find Lutran.”

“He wazn’t anywhere we were father.” Shui stated. “We never zaw him or met him. But he haz Firelight with him, if that helpz.”

“Very little.” Isan grumbled.

A dappled gray horse with striping on his legs and a messy black mane trotted down the stairs, asking, “You wanted me?”

Isan dipped his head. “Thunderztrike, I zeem to be mizzing a hatchling. I wondered if you could help me find him.”

“I’m sure I could.” The small horse smirked. “I’ll make a search party now and have him back before all the good sunning spots are gone.”

He trotted off, a resident smirk lingering on his muzzle.

Drip appeared at the top of the stairs, and Tansy and the Abbotmouse were behind him. Durral ran down the staircase, the hedgehog in his wake, and Isan stepped aside to let them pass. There was a little squeal, and the squirrel maiden threw herself at the abbot, almost plowing him down. “Father Abbot! You’re safe! You’re ok! You’re not pirate fodder! I’m so happy!!”

“Mmfff!” Durral staggered, before hugging Cracklyn back. Then he pushed her back and did his best to glare at her sternly. “You shouldn’t have followed me, you should be safe at the abbey .. what in heaven’s name possessed you to chase pirates!”

Clecky grabbed the abbot in an impromptu headlock, rubbing his headfur vigorously. “Har, you know you’re glad to see us your Abbotsir! Grin and all that, that’s the bally ticket, wot!”

He stepped back, looking the now disheveled Father of Redwall up and down. “I say, you look like a corsair yourself, Abbotness ... just like us! Though I’ve got to say, my coat’s better and your hair’s a bally mess, eh?”

Durral coughed, staggering, as Martin steadied him, stating earnestly, “It’s great to see you safe Father Abbot!”

Plogg and Welko grabbed Tansy’s paws, grinning widely and speaking in turn. “Thank goodness you’re ok!”

“Yea, the thought of never eating one of your meals again was driving me out of my head!”

“You’ve cooked something, haven’t you?”

“Cause we’re as hungry as Clecky right now!”

Isan looked over at Romsca, smiling a little. “Furbeazt, they are a family.”

Romsca started, looking oddly at him. “Huh?”

“They aren’t a family in lookz of courze, but they are ztill a family.” The great dragonlord looked .. happy, or perhaps reminiscent. “Zo do not zay you failed. You brought them together again, and Lutran or not, Lutran’z zizter or not, that iz good. He iz their father .. they are hiz children, and they need each other.”

Romsca blinked, before looking at the happy woodlanders. A strange happiness stole its way into her heart, before it was driven out the next second. She was the one who’d separated them in the first place. None of this would have happened if she just hadn’t kidnapped the Abbotmouse.

Her breath caught in her throat as Tansy asked, “Where’s Grath?”

Clecky’s face fell instantly, Martin flattened his ears, hanging his head, Plogg and Welko stopped talking, and Cracklyn bit her lip, eyes bright. “She .. she ..”

Martin’s voice was wavering. “She’s .. dead.”

Durral’s eyes widened, and he asked, “How?”

He looked to Romsca, asking, “Why didn’t you save her?”

Romsca took a step back, before snapping, “I couldn’t … there was nothin’ I could do.”

Maybe the abbot’s eyes were really just shocked and sorrowful, but to Romsca, they looked angry .. disappointed .. accusing.

“You failed. You weren’t good enough. You failed when you said you wouldn’t.” Romsca pinned her ears at the voice ringing in her head, something she’d hoped she’d ridded herself of forever, but it was returning in full force. “You did this.”

The ferret glared at her feet. “I’m sorry Abbotmouse. This weren’t ever what I wanted, but I couldn’t stop it. Ublaz got ta her before I did. She’s dead. I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t do anything.”

She spat on the ground in anger, closing her eyes. “Go ahead an’ hate me. It’s all I deserve.”

There was silence for a second, before a paw was laid on her arm, and she looked down into Durral’s blue eyes. “You did what you could … thank you for saving the others.”

A tear ran down his cheek, and Romsca clenched her paws so hard her claws dug into her palms. The pain felt good .. distracting .. but it only lasted a few seconds, and Romsca hated it for leaving so fast. Why did woodlanders have to be so pure? Why couldn’t he just hate her like she deserved? Why did he have to forgive her?

She found she had nothing to say, and no will to speak either. She turned away, pulling her arm from his paw. Romsca hated running, but she ran. Not in actual pace perhaps, she walked away, but she was fleeing from the Abbotmouse and his forgiveness. It was too good for her. It always would be.




Chapter 30 This is War

The palace was filled with a deathly silence .. it was never very loud in the Emperors royal abode, but now even routine noises, such as the patter of Monitors or the boots of guards were hushed. Only a few hours after dawn, all of Sampetra knew of the strange events of the night before.

Rumors of ghosts, curses, angry spirits, attacks, war, and even the vengeful children of Lord Fora circulated like mad. Nobeast knew who or what to believe, and everyone seemed to have their own twist on the tale.

Ublaz stood as still as a statue in his chambers, and nobeast, not even Sagitar, dared to so much as knock on the door. The emperor had his claws in the wood of his window sill, digging them in and out, in and out, over and over.

For some reason, he thought of a fox captain who’d dared stand against him, kneeling broken and battered in his throne room, blood staining his fur and one eye sealed shut. That beast had known he would die, there was no way he could have possibly imagined anything else, but he had just stared defiantly, snarling, “The spirit the possessed us will rise again.”

Ublaz thought of a ferret standing before him, fire flashing in his eyes as he screamed the curse of the Lord of Light down upon his head, knowing full well he would die, but doing it anyway.

He thought of a little black haired girl who killed her own executioner, and surrounded by Monitors and rats, pointed a bloody trident at his heart with pure hatred in her eyes, pure defiance.

He’d let her live. It was a game after all, wasn’t it? Life was a game. She was just a player. But she’d gone from a pawn to a knight, she refused to submit, and she refused to die.

Ublaz snarled. Nobeast was here, he could allow himself a moment of anger. He had to, or he would explode and completely loose face. The pine marten drew his cutlass, growling as he spun around, slashing the bottom half of his curtains off in one quick blow and maintaining his stance for a moment.

The fabric crumpled to the floor, and Ublaz straitened up, taking a deep breath to calm himself. It was just a setback. A hard setback, yes, but he could recover from it.

He sheathed his sword, a tiny ghost of a smile attempting to tug at the corner of his mouth. It was a game after all. Games were meant to be played, and far be it from him to be called a sore loser. Anyway, he hadn’t lost. Ublaz never really lost.

The pine marten stalked toward his mirror, gazing at his disheveled appearance and picking up one of the combs on his dresser, running it through his long hair. He could not show he was affected by this, no matter how furious he was. All Sampetra could see was a cool, collected leader ready to face anything that might happen. Who could tell, maybe there was some way to turn this to his favor.

What he did know, was that Romsca was alive. That meant she must still have his pearls .. and knowing they weren’t somewhere at the bottom of the sea was a great consolation. Thanks to his Monitors, he knew Xzaris was somehow alive, as was Barranca.

Honestly, Xzaris’s livelihood confused him the most. Perhaps Romsca or Barranca had rescued him somehow or other, but there was no way he could have possibly recovered from his wounds so soon. He should be in a bed somewhere, inching away from death’s door with a raging fever that rendered him unconscious. But the fact was .. he wasn’t. And that was unexplainable.

Unless ... Ublaz slowly looked up at his reflection in the mirror, pale eyes gleaming. Could it be? Could Xzaris .. dirt poor, spineless, want-to-be-a-captain Xzaris be one of the seven?

How else could he recover from an injury as bad as his? Ublaz knew just how bad it was too .. he’d really not expected the ferret to live more than a few days. As it was, he was already well enough to fight again, so some magic forces must be at work. It must be the case, he must be one of them, and that meant there could be more empowered beasts among vermin.

Besides this, there was the matter of strange new lizards that had the ability to take down his Monitors nearly effortlessly! And where in the name of Hellgates had those things come from?

For once, Ublaz was truly baffled. He had honestly thought he’d subjugated every lizard on the island .. but quite apparently not.

The emperor wound his turban around his head, pinning it in place with a jeweled and feathered clasp. He heaved a sigh. It was time to confront Sagitar and find out her side of this story.

><><

“Don’t do it! Face me Ublaz, fight me! Leave her ‘lone .. by alla heaven, it’s my fault!”

Romsca ran down the hallway, paw on her axe handle. The emperor was at the end of it, with the ottermaid she’d failed to save chained to the wall. She looked just as she always did, just as she had the one time Romsca had seen her, young, dirty, and wounded.

Ublaz faced her without the slightest bit of worry, a sick smile on his face as he drew his cutlass. Her footsteps were slow, almost leaden, and the pine marten’s voice echoed hauntingly through the corridor, and through the fiber of her soul.

“It is your fault. All of it is. You should pay, but you won’t. She will.”

“No!” Romsca’s roar of fury was useless as Ublaz slashed his cutlass across his prisoner’s torso, and she screamed in agony.

Romsca whipped out her axe, leaping the last few feet and bringing the weapon down on Ublaz with every ounce of strength she possessed. It never touched him. He flung his empty paw out, green shooting from it and slamming into her chest.

She flew back and hit something, rolling to the hard floor. The ferret forced her eyes open as Ublaz stalked toward her, and she lurched to her feet, drawing a knife.

Then she met his gaze, and froze. The crippling, mind-numbing sensation of mocking calmness took hold of her .. he was going to kill her .. going to kill others, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t care. She wanted to more than anything, but she could do nothing.

Ublaz laid a paw on her shoulder, smiled, and thrust his cutlass through her torso. The spell was broken, but it was too late .. all she could do was fall helpless to the floor, writhing in pain and choking on blood.

The emperor smiled down on her, voice merry. “Sorry ... I was joking. You will pay. You and every male, female, and child who dares to defy me. And every, single woodlander. So die, oh great dragon of Sampetra, and know you couldn’t save anyone. That you never did, and you never will. You’re a disgrace to your name.”

He smirked, sheathing his cutlass, and slowly walked away. Romsca turned her gaze to the ottermaid, hanging limply from bonds and staring at her with vacant green eyes, blood slowly dripping from her wounds.

“I’m sorry ... I’m so sorry!”

Romsca half sat up with a horrible start, falling back to her bed of cave moss the next second. She gasped in a shaking breath, raising a paw to her forehead to hopefully quell the ache jolting through her brain.

She rolled over, to find Xzaris watching her from several feet away. Or in any case, at least facing her. It was broad daylight .. as much as it could be inside a cave, and the other furbeasts were fast asleep in makeshift beds of their own, scattered across the stone floor.

“Uhgg .. shouldn’t ya be sleepin’?”

“I didn’t hardly do nothin’.” He replied softly, so as not to wake any of the others. “Nightmares?”

Romsca lowered her voice as well, sighing deeply. “Yea.”

He wasn’t in any way surprised. “What ‘bout?”

Romsca allowed herself a shudder. “Ya don’t wanna know. Basically .. Ublaz killed the otter I couldn’t save .. then he killed me.”

The pine marten’s words rang mockingly through her head, and she relaxed with a sigh, staring across the floor her cheek rested upon. “I thought .. well .. hoped I might .. not have anymore. Guess I was wrong.”

“What changed? I mean .. we all knew ya had lots .. before this whole quest fer the pearls started. Anyway .. I knew at least. Ya’d use it as an excuse fer why ya was always tired, but I knew it was cause ya didn’t sleep.”

Romsca sighed. “I guess I woke ya when I’d go ta me study in the middle a the night?”

Xzaris shrugged. “Yea.”

They were silent for a moment, before Romsca spoke again. “I donno. After I met Ignasa .. it changed. It was like somethin’ that’d been bein’ tormented was at peace. I was calm .. I could think logically an’ levelly .. I wasn’t paranoid. It was a wonnerful feelin’. Fer the first time in seasons .. I just wasn’t paranoid. I weren’t scared a nothin’.”

She breathed a sigh. “But it’s comin’ back now. It’s cloudin’ my mind .. I can’t hardly think clearly an’ I react ta all my emotions .. I guess it was ta good ta last long.”

“Huh.” Xzaris was looking at her oddly.

“What is it?” She asked in confusion.

He shook his head. “Nothin’ .. nothin’. It’s nothin’ ... jist .. somethin’ does feel sorta off ‘bout ya. It’s real weird .. I can’t stand feelin’ this way about ya, but there’s somethin’ … cold. Wrong.”

Romsca felt a chill. “What do ya mean by that?”

“Believe me ..” Xzaris insisted, “I hate feelin’ this ‘bout ya. I hate it .. but I .. can’t deny it. Somethin’ bout ya .. is cold.”

“What’da ya mean .. how so? When did this crazy stuff start fer ya?”

He shook his head. “I donno .. ya .. sorta give me chills somehow. But it’s real fuzzy an’ cloudy .. honestly, everythin’ feels off. An’ it started .. after ya saved me. After .. ya came back.”

His last words were reluctant. She stared at him, before groaning. “Then it ain’t in my head? I .. don’t understand … Ignasa said .. he said I weren’t evil anymore!”

“I’m sorry .. it ain’t yer fault!”

“What if’n it is?”

“Nah .. nah ferget I said nothin’.” Xzaris begged. “I shouldn’t a said it .. I’m jist a crazy blind polecat who can’t help nobeast .. I’m jist goin’ crazy, that’s all.”

He seemed to want to assure himself of that fact. Romsca didn’t say anything for a moment, before she sighed, “If anybeast’s crazy, it’s me. I’ve done some awful things .. some insane things, an’ I ain’t even sure what possessed me ta do ‘em.”

“C’mon Rom, yer not ..”

“No .. I am.” She cut him off. “Some things I’ve done .. I deserve ta remember ferever. I fed a beast alive ta Lask .. an’ I swear I almost enjoyed it. I didn’t .. it was awful .. but ..”

Xzaris stared at her with a certain amount of horror in his eyes, and she sighed. “I’d do it different now .. sure I’d kill him, he deserved it .. but I wouldn’t do it like that.”

Xzaris shuddered. “What in Hellgates did he do?”

“Wull .. he led a mutiny, tried ta assassinate me .. an’ kiss me on topa it. He was disgustin’.”

“Sounds like it.” Xzaris said after a moment, voice far less horrified and more repulsed. “Can’t say I’m awful sorry fer ‘im in that case.”

“That ain’t the point.” Romsca’s voice was quiet. “Point is .. it’s somethin’ Ublaz would do. An’ smile about. An’ I felt that. I felt justified. Almost .. glad.”

She slowly curled up, gazing sadly at the floor. “Maybe I have just been nothin’ but selfish all this time.”

“Wull ..” Xzaris paused, “I ain’t gonna say ya haven’t ever been selfish.”

Romsca raised an eyebrow, and he shook his head. “I don’t mean it like that ..”

“Am I just a bad friend?”

Xzaris shook his head quickly, before smiling a little. “Nah. Yer the first friend I ever had. No matter what happens .. that’s always gonna be true.”

Romsca smiled crookedly, before sighing. “What’s wrong with me?”

“I donno. I donno what’s wrong with me either.” He twitched an ear, before asking, “What’re we gonna do now? We jist broke inta Ublaz’s palace, an’ the dragons were seen. He’s gonna hunt us down. An’ what ‘bout Rasconza?”

Romsca laid her head down, muttering, “I donno. I don’t got a clue. But I sure hope somebeast’s gotta better plan than I do. An’ fer his own sake .. I kinda hope Rasconza stays away.”

><><

The quiet forests of Sampetra were disturbed by a repeating clank of metal on metal as Lutran wrestled with the chain and weight fastened to Grath’s leg. She sat still, staring at her paws in silence as her brother tried multiple techniques to unshackle her, from attempting to pick the lock to smashing the chain with rocks.

The metal had twisted some, but it was amazingly resilient, and Lutran finally flung his rock away, scowling. “Curse this chain ... I’d need my forge to get it off.”

Firelight looked up from where he was grazing, and Lutran sighed. “I’m sorry Grath .. I can’t remove it with what I’ve got now. Besides it’s daylight. We’re .. too late to do anything.”

She didn’t look up, though her voice trembled. “I know.”

Lutran wished she’d say more than that .. really, above all, he wished this could be a happy time. He’d dreamed of being reunited with all of his siblings, but especially the one he’d had the deepest connection with .. Grath. Now they were together again .. she wasn’t dead .. but he couldn’t even enjoy it.

He scowled, wanting to ask if she was even that glad to see him at all. Deep down, he knew she was doing nothing more than grieving for her friends, but it still felt wrong. Frustrating. Bitterly ironic. Lutran was tired of irony.

“You know you have me.” He blurted it without thinking, and she slowly looked up.

“What .. do you mean?”

Lutran didn’t meet her gaze. “Sorry. But after all these seasons we’re reunited, and all you can think about are other creatures. It’s like .. you moved on.”

“That’s not true!” Grath’s voice was sharp. “I missed you all the time! But .. those beasts that are dead or dying in those dungeons .. they were there for me when you couldn’t be, or at least a lot of them. Haven’t you made friends like that? Friends that are like your family?”

“Yes ..” her brother rubbed his forehead. “Yea .. I get it. I do. I’d probably feel the same way .. but I wouldn’t just sit there silently.”

He couldn’t resist adding that. Grath looked away. “I can’t do anything. That Emperor was right about one thing .. I’m nothing special. I couldn’t even counter him, all I could do was be angry and afraid. Terribly afraid. I had a chance to kill him, but I couldn’t even do that.”

She reached up a touched the rip across her nose. “All I could do was wound him. That got me nowhere, and I would have drowned without you.”

Lutran raised an eyebrow. “Haven’t you trained at all since .. the attack?”

“Yes .. but mostly with bows and arrows. I’m just an archer. And as I proved so wonderfully, it’s a useless skill in close quarters.”

Lutran was silent for a moment, before stating, “It’s a start. I use archery a lot myself .. but it’s not my only means of fighting. You need another weapon, one for close range, and you need to learn it well. You need to learn paw to paw combat .. then you can face that beast and kill him, and avenge your friends. I can help with that, and so can my friends. Come on Grath, are you really going to believe a vermin?”

She sighed, before shaking her head. “I don’t know. What are your friends like? There are other woodlanders on this island?”

“No .. no, they’re not woodlanders. They’re lizards. Dragons, actually.”

Grath stared at him. “You’re friends .. with dragons?”

Lutran shrugged. “And horses .. actually I was adopted by the dragon lord. It’s a long story.”

Firelight lifted his head, a little grass falling from his mouth as he cocked his ears forward. He swallowed stating, “Lutran, hate to break up your reunion, but I think Thunderstrike’s coming.”

“Oh great.” The otter sighed.

“Yea, you’re going to get it.” Firelight shook his head. “If Isan’s worried enough to send the herd stallion after you, I can’t imagine he’s happy.”

Lutran stood up, helping Grath onto her paws. In that second, a green lizard leapt out of the underbrush, and Grath scrambled back with a little scream, the chain tangling around her paws and yanking her legs out from under her. She fell in a heap, eyes wide as she stared at the intruder, then at Lutran, as he displayed no negative reaction.

“It’s ok, don’t freak out!” He insisted, looking at the lizard. “Drip, you’re scaring my sister.”

The beast in question cocked his head. “That’z you zizter?”

“Yea, Drip, this is my sister Grath, Grath, this is my brother Drip.”

“Wha .. your .. brother? Oh .. right .. yea ..” The otter rubbed her head, slowly sitting up and slipping her feet from the loops of chain that had tightened around them.

Drip looked apologetic. “I’m zorry, we zeem to have an effect on ztrange furbeaztz. I didn’t mean to zcare you. Though I waz told you were dead.”

Grath looked at him in confusion, and Lutran asked, “Why is that?”

“Well, that’z what the Romzca ferret zaid.”

Lutran’s eyes darkened. “She’s a dirty liar, and I’ll enjoy it when I get to kill her.”

Drip sighed. “Honeztly Lutran, you need to relax. And you’re going to be dizzapointed, cauze nobeast will be killing her anytime zoon.”

Thunderstrike walked out of the forest, several horses behind him, as Lutran looked darkly at Drip, scowling deeply. “Why would you say that?”

“For one thing, zhe did juzt zave every other woodlander that waz in that zity.”

“What?” Grath started forward. “My friends? They aren’t dead?”

Drip shrugged. “If your freindz are zpikey ratz, zpotty ratz, wounded foxez and otterz, and a ztrange-tailed beazt, then yez.”

He turned to Lutran, stating, “The ferret and the other zity beaztz rezcued them with Rockz and Zhui’z help. They couldn’t find your zizter and told uz Ublaz had gotten to her before they did. It wazn’t for lack of trying though, and if they’d ztayed in the zity, nobeast would have ezcaped. Father zpared them, at least for now. And zinze they rizked an even worze death than we would have given them and zaved freindz of your zizter, I’d zay you zhould let it be.”

Lutran looked somewhat confused, but mostly disgusted.

Thunderstrike spoke up. “It’s true. You need to drop this Lutran. Several of them were wounded in the attempt, and the raid also gave Jian time to steal several new ships. The deck’s stacked against you, I’ve got to say.”

That was not what Lutran wanted to hear. Not in the least .. but he said nothing, just helped Grath up again, expression stormy. “Let’s get home.”

Firelight broke in. “About that .. we might have been back already if it weren’t for that chain.”

Drip walked to Grath’s side, sniffing the restraint in question, before picking it up with his mouth, lifting the weight from the ground. “Yea, that’z kind of heavy. Juzt walk zo you don’t trip on the chain, and I’ll carry this.”

><><

Romsca slept most of the day, awaking as dusk was falling, which, as she was in a cave, happened pretty quickly. She sat up slowly, looking around the lofty, open-air room the dragons had put her in.

Most of the woodlanders weren’t even there, the only other creatures in the room being Rocks, Barranca, and Xzaris. The lizard was sleeping in the fading light of his once sunny bed, and the two pirates were fast asleep as well.

Romsca slowly stood, walking quietly to the railing of the room, looking out across the dimming cave. The waning light caught the cascade of waterfalls running down one wall, setting them aglow and turning the underground river into a shining stream of gold and silver.

She watched for a few minutes, and the light dimmed even more. In a sudden second, the water’s golden shine vanished, leaving it dull gray. The faint sunlight crept up the cave walls, nearing the ceiling and fading away.

As darkness took over, small, sudden bursts of firelight appeared on the ground far below as torches and fires were lit here and there, marking roadways and lighting the cave-wall town that was somehow still one building.

Romsca rubbed her head, finally looking down. It really was beautiful. Just weird that she would actually think that. She knew she needed to think of something else, to be honest, but everything was rather fuzzy. Something had happened .. of course, what kind of an idiot was she.

They’d broke into Ublaz’s palace, freed his prisoners, and she’d failed to save the little ottermaid. Val had gotten hurt too ..

Romsca yanked her head up, exclaiming, “Val!”

Rocks blinked, asking sleepily, “What?”

“My friend .. the fox. Is she alright?”

He stretched his bandaged front leg, shrugging, “Zhe’z with the Healerz. We can go zee her if you’d like.”

Romsca nodded. “Yea. Do ya know if .. anythin’ was permanently .. damaged?”

She had horrible visions of Val having no use of her legs for the rest of her life, or worse. Rocks stood up. “I’m not zure. I waz pretty tired lazt morning.”

Xzaris stirred, sitting up. “If yer leavin’, kin I come along?”

He picked up his staff, and Romsca looked over at Barranca, still fast asleep. “Ok, what ‘bout me uncle?”

“He zhould be fine here, and he lookz zleepy. Zomebody will come around and wake him.”

Romsca followed Rocks down the stairs. “Ya really ain’t worried ‘bout us at all, is ya? Not even that we’d cause trouble?”

The lizard shrugged. “Well, we fought bezide you, yez? Bezidez, I feel your uncle fearz for hiz life too much to do anything. Zomething that iz wize. Becauze there are alwayz guardz in the Vale of Dragonz. And it took over ten furbeaztz to wound me even thiz much. Not zaying we would, but zatiztically .. your group wouldn’t ztand a chanze againzt uz. And you’re zmart furbeaztz, I know you’ve figured that much out.”

“Yea ..” Romsca admitted. “Ya’ve gotta good point. I guess I have ta get used ta beasts who don’t fear me or gimme public death threats.”

There was a splash from behind them, and they turned to see Xzaris had walked into the pool in the center of this lower room. He climbed out, shaking his boots off disgustedly and grumbling under his breath.

Romsca walked back. “Here, take me paw.”

He sighed, feeling for her paw for a moment before finding it. “Wish I didn’t have ta do this.”

“Really?” Rocks asked. “I though you would like holding her paw. Zinze you two are together and all.”

“Wha .. no .. that ain’t .. what I meant!” Xzaris protested.

“Yea .. weren’t not.” Romsca stated.

Rocks raised an eye-ridge. “Ok, if you zay zo.”

He walked away, and Romsca sighed, following him, Xzaris in her wake. Why did beasts assume that? It was frustrating. She knew what her relationship with Xzaris was, it wasn’t a romantic one, and that was a good thing. It had never been before, and changing that would be way too awkward. Besides, why would she want it to change?

For some strange reason, her reasoning faltered for a moment. She’d done some pretty crazy things in the last few days, but none crazier than killing herself to save Xzaris. Looking back on that … that was insane. And the feeling she’d had that night crept back into her mind .. the feeling she could not live without him.

Wait .. no .. that wasn’t ... it couldn’t .. nope. No. It was .. friendship. Loyalty. Romsca realized even her thoughts were good at stammering random excuses, ones that didn’t really make her feelings more grounded.

It didn’t help that she was holding Xzaris’s paw and she had to keep doing so because he was blind. Romsca grumbled inwardly, shoving the stupid thoughts to the back of her head. They could stay with all her other problems .. suddenly she stopped, and Xzaris did as well. “What is it?”

“The otter that was wounded.” Romsca stated. “I ..”

Rocks looked over his shoulder. “Don’t ztop now, we’re nearly there. It’z right down thiz ramp.”

Romsca sighed, and followed him. Xzaris was silent for a minute, before suddenly blurting, “Hey, wait a second .. what is ya thinkin’? Cause it better not be cuttin’ anymore a yer hair.”

She didn’t look over her shoulder at him. “I don’t wanna .. trust me on that. But Xzaris ... ain’t it at least right? I am the reason they were caught inna first place, an’ I couldn’t .. save the ottermaid. I feel like .. it’s my responsibility.”

“Ya can’t really be serious! You’ll die .. ‘gain!”

“Yea .. wull I think that’s gonna be a thing that sorta happens now.”

Xzaris shook his head. “Ya jist did like ... four days ago! Magic or not, dyin’ twice inna week has gotta be bad fer ya!”

Rocks stopped by the pillars leading into the spacious, sunny patio, asking, “What iz this about?”

“Nothin’.” Romsca sighed. “Let’s jist see how bad off everybeast is.”

She led Xzaris into the room, then let go of his paw as she slowly walked forward. All rooms in the dragon palace were clean, but this one was spotless. The middle of the roof was sparkling glass, that would reflect the sun brilliantly with the shallow pool of crystal water beneath it in daylight hours. As it was dark now, lanterns hung from the outer pillars of this large, circular chamber.

Rocks looked over his shoulder, explaining, “Light iz good for healing. And Yanze iz our bezt healer. Zhe haz otherz who help her, like Zhell. He’z very good at healing .. and trying to give orderz. But don’t tell him I zaid that.”

Romsca was far more concerned with the large lizard approaching them, dull blue with greenish and brown speckles running across its face and down its side. Surprisingly enough, while it’s coloration and head looked like a Zhanshi, it had the Neishi’s characteristic ridges down it’s spine.

Rocks bowed his head and scuffed his forefeet, something Romsca was coming to understand was a sign of respect. “Yanze, the furbeaztz wanted to zee their freindz.”

“They do eh?” Yanze’s voice was tired. “I’ve had furbeaztz in my zcalez all day, azking all kindz of ztupid queztionz, like they can’t even truzt the Dragonlordz perzonal healer. How do they think I got that title? But if they don’t pezter me, fine. And by my zcalez, do not wake the fox-girl. Zhe iz the worzt.”

The dragon turned back the way she had come. “Thiz way. They are on the other zide of the pool .. Rockz, I’ll zee how your leg iz doing, now that you’re here.”

As the followed Yanse, Romsca looked down at Rocks, asking softly, “She looks like a cross of a Zhanshi and a Neishi .. is she?”

“That’z right.” Rocks stated. “What’z zo ztrange about that? You don’t really look like a pure ferret-beazt either.”

“I ain’t.” Romsca acknowledged.

This room was truly massive and Yanse led them around the pool, stopping about a third of the way around it. Makeshift beds and hammocks had been set up to better accommodate wounded furbeasts, as dragons seemed to like sleeping on rock, wounded or otherwise. The black fox was on a bed of cave moss while Val snored away in a hammock Romsca assumed was borrowed from her ship. The vixen’s legs were splinted and bandaged, along with several other deep scrapes on her shoulders.

“What’s the extant a the damage ta her?” Romsca asked hesitantly, praying the vixen hadn’t been paralyzed.

“Her legz are broken, obviouzly.” Yanse sighed as she sniffed the male fox’s wounds. “I don’t know how fazt furbeaztz heal, but zhe zhouldn’t walk for a long while.”

“She ain’t gonna know what ta do with herself.” Xzaris remarked.

Romsca shook her head in agreement .. Val was hyper-active. Her, bedridden? For however long it took bones to heal? This was going to be miserable for quite a few creatures.

The vixen’s red hair spilled over the side of her hammock, and honestly, she looked pretty peaceful. Romsca didn’t want to wake her up. “So she’s gonna walk again?”

“Oh, I exzpect zo.” Yanse didn’t seem very concerned. “In a few monthz.”

Romsca looked around the open area, noticing the otter lying on a bed of rock and moss on the other side of Val. “Hey is the otter .. gonna be ok?”

Yanse shrugged. “It’z not like I know everything about furbeaztz, but I think zo. Eventually. Honeztly, he should be much better in a week, though it will be longer before he’z completely normal.”

The lizard went about her work, and Xzaris sighed. “Wull we is a mess. I lost me sight, ya die, git saved by some flower an’ have voices in yer head, an’ Val’s stuck in bed with broken legs. I really hate ta think what Rasconza looks like ‘bout now.

Romsca shuddered, imagining the fox lying dead on his own ship’s deck, or being eaten alive by Monitors. “Uhg, ya an’ me both. Just pray mate.”

><><

Contrary to Romsca’s nightmarish thoughts, the fox who strode down the gangplank of the Bloodkeel seemed to have gotten the best hand out of the cards fate and Ublaz had dealt. The worst he had was a bandaged arm and a hungry crew.

He held a torch easily in his good paw, as he and the crew looked around the netherworld they had found. Cold moonlight lit very little of it, though the ghostly shine from the mouth of the cave cast dancing reflections on the entrance’s ceiling.

Rasconza stepped down onto the cold rock ledge his ship was moored against, handing his torch to Slashback as he felt the wall that gleamed black in the firelight. He slowly walked forward and the crew followed him quickly, walking deeper into the cavern.

There was a good reason they were known as Whispering Caverns, Rasconza quickly discovered. The soft surf flooding in and rushing out of the mouth of this monumental cave made a hissing crash that reverberated around the place with the sound of a thousand whispers. It was rather chilling, but this was probably, in truth, one of the safest places on Sampetra.

The sea made a deep niche in the cave’s mouth, before stopping with a sharp cliff side it was constantly eroding. The cave continued far past the pallid light the pirates’ torches could cast, but Rasconza knew he’d found his hideout.

“Crew, we set up a camp here. Some of you find a dry spot and build a fire for cooking, and the rest see about fishing in this inlet.”

They didn’t look extremely excited about staying in the echoing cave, but they were hungry, and hunger overcame their fear. Rasconza looked over a Slashback, nodding, “This is the place.”

“I donno capt’n.” The rat looked darkly around. “Seems like a place Lord Fora would hang about.”

Rasconza sneered. “Then he’ll have to reckon with me. I don’t fear the deities anymore .. if they want my respect, they need to earn it.”

Slashback watched him with cold eyes, before shaking his head and stroking his paw down the cave wall. “It’s volcanic .. no stalactites anywhere.”

“That means it’s dry.” Rasconza shrugged. His first mate sighed, asking, “If we’re going ta stay here indefinitely, what’re we gonna do ‘bout the oar-slaves? Should we keep ‘em locked in the hold fer a fast getaway if’n we need it?”

“Hmm .. I’ll think about it. A slave with no work to do is a dangerous thing.”

“Should we just kill ‘em?”

Rasconza turned on him incredulously. “What kind of an idiot idea is that?”

Slashback shrugged. “I’m just sayin’. I donno what yer plannin’ fer sure, but if we won’t be usin’ the ship no more, they’re just a waste a time an’ food.”

“Who said anything about not using Bloodkeel? This is our secret cove, and it’s going to serve as our battleship. Fast raids. Here and there, strike fast, leave no survivors and become the bane of the imperial fleet. We’ll need oarslaves for that.” Rasconza scratched his chin. “But when we’re not sailing, they do need a job.”

He rubbed his arm. “Now that we’re here, supervise the crew. I’ll be on deck, I need full function of my arm as soon as possible.”

The fox turned away, walking back to the gangplank and up it, going to his cabin and rummaging through so drawers in his desk. He pulled out a set of keys, before walking down to the galley. Silence met him, his slaves did their best to avoid his gaze, as they should.

Rasconza unlocked his healer’s chains from her oar and bench, motioning she should follow him. Selina wasn’t his strongest slave, but she was the most talented, or at very least, the most obedient. She never argued or fought, and never looked hateful .. just sad and lifeless. Honestly it was a bit unnatural.

They walked out on deck, and Rasconza led her to his cabin, pulling his box of supplies and setting it on his desk. “Rebandage my arm.”

She nodded, digging through the medical supplies and pulling out the things she needed. Rasconza had a chance to look her over, and he noticed something. “You’ve grown, haven’t you?”

Selina looked confused. “Sir?”

“You need new clothes.” Rasconza clarified. “That dress barely stays on you. I’ll get you a new one.”

She didn’t answer, he didn’t expect her to. The mouse undid the bandages wrapped around his shoulder and arm, revealing the slowly healing but still ugly wound. As she gently rubbed and alcohol-soaked cloth over it, Rasconza noticed something else. “Your hair needs cut again.”

Selina’s ears drooped a little, but she nodded silently. She wrapped a new set of bandages over his injury, tying it tightly, before taking a few steps back. Rasconza stood, swinging the injured limb carefully. It was still stiff, but he could tell it was healing rapidly, for which he was glad.

“Sir .. where are we?” Selina asked quietly.

Rasconza shrugged. “That’s not really your business. Let’s just leave it at I’m defying Ublaz and this is my hideout.”

He walked to the door and she followed him out of the cabin, not asking more questions. Rasconza stopped, drawing a knife. “Hold still.”

Selina obeyed silently as he grabbed her tangled hair, lifting it of her shoulders and cutting it short, so it reached about the middle of her neck. It fell to the deck around her feet, and Rasconza nodded. “You’ll get a bath and new clothes tomorrow, come on.”

The mouse followed him again, back down in the galley and allowed him to chain her again without a word, though the rabbit that was her rowing partner glared sullenly at him. Rasconza didn’t waste his time on her, he turned away and walked out of the galley, climbing the stairs and disappearing from sight.

Wind finally spoke after a long moment of silence, voice flat. “Why do you just tolerate it? I would kill him.”

Selina looked away. “I’m not strong enough.”

“You pull an oar on a regular basis.” Wind sounded almost sarcastic.

“It doesn’t matter.” Selina reached up and touched the frayed tips of her short hair. “I’m a slave. I can barely remember freedom. I have nowhere to go. It’s different for you, you might have a home left, but I have nothing.”

She leaned across her oar, sighing, “I have no say, no voice. I’m too tired to try. The ones who fight are punished. That’s the way it always will be. A long time ago, I wanted freedom, just like you. I thought I might be able to go home .. but that almost got me killed. The captain is the only reason it didn’t. Serving him is better than death.”

Wind sneered, though her voice didn’t change. “Is it?”

“To me it is. I don’t know why, but it is.” Selina sighed softly. “I will serve the captain until I die, that’s a slave’s lot in life. To serve.”

“You shouldn’t be a slave. None of this is right. I don’t get how you stand it.” The hare’s voice was flat, but she demanded an answer anyway.

Another of the slaves spoke up, a black, middle aged squirrel sitting a few oars behind them on the opposite side of the galley. “Because we have to. You just don’t get it. Once you’ve served long enough, you have no will left to fight, and I’ve been a slave most of my life. There’s nothing left after a while. It destroys a beast.”

Selina met Wind’s dull gaze. “He’s right. I might have had a free will once .. but it died long ago. If I did get away from the captain, what would I do? Where would I go? How would I live? This is all I have left.”

“Ugh.” Wind sounded disgusted, but still pretty emotionless. “Didn’t you ever want anything more than this swill-hole? Didn’t you have any fantasies or .. anything?”

Selina shook her head. “Maybe. Yes. But I gave up, because they’ll never come true.”

Wind huffed. “Well, mine is to throttle that captain and kill his entire crew. And I haven’t given up yet, I’m just waiting.”

“That’s a stupid dream.” Selina sighed. “The sooner you give that suicidal plan up, the better for all of us. You’ll only make our live worse.”

“Oh really? Well surely that was your dream too.” Wind countered.

“Not really.”

“What else could you want?” The hare actually got some emotion in her voice, disbelief.

“You’ll say it’s stupid. Everybeast who knows it does.” Selina scowled a little. “I dreamed that someone would save me.”

Wind stared at her a moment in complete silence, before hooding her eyes and speaking in her flat voice. “Maybe that’s why you’re still here.”

Selina shook her head, looking away and not directly answering. “Nobeast would truly save a slave.”

><><

Grath might have stared in wonder at the strange gate into the Vale of Dragons, or the monumental caverns, or the moonlight and torches lighting the wall-city and the crystal river … but she was asleep. Draped over Thunderstrike’s withers with Rocks carrying the chain and weight, she was truly exhausted.

Nobeast could really blame her, after experiencing dark magic, being thrown off a wall and nearly drowning, and then refusing to rest out of worry for her friends.

When she did wake up, it was because Lutran was shaking her and helping her dismount. Grath mumbled something irrelevant and stupid, before she actually realized they had stopped and they weren’t in the forest anymore.

“Wha .. where are we?”

Lutran actually smiled. “This is the Vale of Dragons. I wish I could have given you a grander first look, but you seemed to need sleep more.”

He pointed to a large building at the base of the cave wall, part of it carved from the rock itself and the rest open air, the walls replaced with many pillars to support the roof. Lutran pulled a flint from his satchel, lighting a torch hanging from a bracket on the pillar nearest the steps leading in. “This is my blacksmith shop and armory, come on in.”

Thunderstrike spoke suddenly. “You’re busy now, but I’ll be back around moonfade to have you replace a shoe. I have a loose one.”

He trotted off, and the other horses followed him. Grath raised an eyebrow. “Moonfade?”

“It’s like sunset.” Lutran explained as he led her into the building, Rocks helping her get the weight up the steps. “Like woodlanders might say they’ll come back in the evening, that’s the idea. Except here, evening is basically morning.”

Grath was silent for a moment, before sighing, “I’m confused.”

Lutran laughed. “You’ll figure it out in a couple nights .. I mean days. Dragons are nocturnal, and I’ve become the same.”

“Oh ..” Grath felt very odd about her brother being so different than he used to be. She let her gaze wander around the shop, with shelves of knives, spears, and arrows. “You .. made all this?”

“Not all of it ..” Lutran admitted. “Jian helps a lot .. and some other dragons too. But the arrows are all my creations, and so is the armor.”

Drip dropped the weight near the forge, stating, “We had only one old zmith when Lutran came, but he zort of brought the zkill back to life.”

“Yea, it turns out I really love smithing.” Lutran dragged a stool over for her to sit on. “I never imagined I’d find it interesting, but I do .. most of these weapons and armor are my original designs.”

“That’s .. really impressive.” Grath admitted, though she looked down again quickly.

Lutran cocked his head. “Is something wrong?”

“No, of course not!” She quickly stated. “It’s just .. you’ve got so much talent, and it’s actually useful. All I’ve ever done is paint pictures of things that already exist and learn archery. I feel like I wasted a lot of my life being shy and doing things that didn’t help anybeast.”

Lutran draped the chain over the forge, insisting, “That can’t be true. I know you .. you’re adventurous and determined, and you won’t let somebeast tell you that you can’t.”

Grath sighed. “Maybe I was that way before ... but after the attack I faded into myself and didn’t try much at all. I decided what was in my comfort zone and tried not to leave it. I guess I .. gave up.”

Lutran didn’t answer for a moment as he grabbed a forge hammer and a stake, and set about breaking the chain. “Well, maybe you did. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change it now.”

“I think .. now that you’re alive after all .. that’ll be a lot easier to do.” She smiled. “I missed having a family, so I’m glad I have one again, even if it’s just you and me.”

Drip raised one of his eye ridges. “Juzt him and you? You have a much bigger family than that. He iz our brother, zo you’re our zizter. Zhui will like having a zizter, zinze all zhe haz iz brotherz.” “I .. but I’m not a lizard ..” Grath stammered.

Drip rolled his eyes. “Neither iz he .. that’z not the point. How old are you anyway?”

Grath blinked. “Uhh .. twenty seasons .. I think? Maybe nineteen? Wow .. I’m older than I thought. I feel .. kind of old now .. how old are you now?”

This was directed to Lutran, who shrugged. “I’m twenty-four.”

“Zee? You are both az young az me .. younger even.” Drip looked a little smug. “And why would you feel old when you’re zo young? I’m twenty-zeven, I’m not even an adult yet.”

“Well .. you actually .. would be.” Grath looked confused.

Lutran sighed. “Dragons are adults at thirty. You and I have some seasons to go before we stop being children here. They basically see me as a fourteen season old.”

“Oh ..” Grath once again found herself reduced to a nondescript answer that was far more bewildered than it was actually interested. Really, she was too tired and overwhelmed to think properly. “Can we .. maybe talk about this after I’ve slept several hours?”

Lutran nodded. “That might be better. I’ll be honest .. it’s been a stressful last few days for me too.”

His voice switched to a small growl as he slammed the hammer down on the chain and it snapped, sliding from the forge with a clatter. Drip sighed. “They’re furbeaztz like you.”

“They are vermin!” Lutran lashed out, small fangs bared. “They are nothing like me. They are filthy monsters, and I want to kill them all! I will always be better than them, I was born better than them!”

Drip looked down. “I think I zee why the Romzca ferret hatez you.”

“Well what if you saw why I hate her? They tore my family .. my entire people .. to shreds and they didn’t even bury them! Then when they gave me just a little hope my broken family could survive, they murdered them in front of me! And as a final act of mockery, one of them saved my life and was so stupidly innocent I could barely despise her!”

Lutran’s green eyes gleamed in anger. “Now they come here and beg for shelter? They deserve death! Besides, you’re my family too .. you’re all I have left.”

He looked from a speechless Grath to Drip, who cocked his head. Lutran scowled. “Can’t you see I want to protect you? I don’t want this to happen again when I could have stopped it!”

“I think ..” Drip began, but Lutran interrupted.

“You think, but you don’t know .. they’re evil! I’ve heard of idiots who claimed vermin could be good, but there’s only one way a vermin can be good .. through death!”

Grath looked down, before raising her head to meet her brother’s gaze. “Stop it. Just stop. Can’t we have a reunion without talking about killing somebeast? I’m tired of bloodshed, I’m tired of all this hate! But I can’t stop it .. so please Lutran .. just .. stop.”

He looked down, before sighing, “You’re tired. Do you want something to eat before you sleep?”

“I am starving.” She admitted.

Drip sighed with relief as the tension disbanded. The three walked out of the armory, and the dragon smiled again, looking in Grath’s direction. “Well, our ziblingz zhould be having breakfazt az well, zo you can meet them.”

Grath couldn’t help but wonder if they would get along with her, or want to eat her, but her thoughts were pretty vague, and the only ones that weren’t were likely offensive. So she fell back on an easy answer. “Ok ..”

><><

The dining hall was massive, and not terribly far from the ground .. probably seventy or so feet from it. Romsca could barely believe she thought that wasn’t crazily high, but as the room they’d been sleeping in had to be several hundred feet above the cave floor, this wasn’t that bad.

The tables .. if they could really be called that .. were close to the ground and carved from solid stone. They had simple but beautiful geometrical patterns carved and painted onto their surfaces, removing the need of any type of table cloth.

Romsca couldn’t help but feel, that while the room was full of dragons, it had been designed for hundreds more. The ceiling was taller than any she had seen so far in the palace, and the rafters had large, softly glowing stones hanging from them on long chains.

Rocks seemed to notice her staring at them and explained. “Thoze are fireztonez from the ancient izlandz. The Jiang created theze roomz, and the fireztonez were a zymbol of their culture.”

“Do they glow alla time?” Romsca asked in wonder.

“Yez, az long az the zunlight warmz them all day, they create light for uz all night.” Rocks stopped walking. “Your freindz are over there, I think. Zee? Zhui iz with them.”

“Ya know, yer very .. kind ta stay around us when ya must have your own friends.” Xzaris said it with the smallest amount of suspicion.

Rocks shrugged. “We did bring you back. It waz our patrol, zo you are our rezponzibility .. at leazt until you become dragonz .. or otherwize.”

Romsca could guess what ‘or otherwise’ meant, and she didn’t really want to consider it.

All the furbeasts, woodlander and vermin alike, were sitting on the floor around one of the tables, as it was quite big enough, having been sized to dragons. Rocks grinned. “Find a zeat .. I’m hungry.”

He bounded over to Shui, and Romsca looked for a good seat, though most of the woodlanders had seen her already, and were looking at her warily. She took Xzaris’s paw, not meeting their gazes as she walked over to Arashi, who was sitting in between Shui and Sayna.

Romsca sat next to the mouse, relieved to see her awake again. Xzaris carefully sat down as she smiled a little. “It’s good ta see yer alright.”

Sayna turned her head to look at the ferret fully, and Romsca jerked her paw back, grimacing.

“I look lovely don’t I .. to garner that reaction from a pirate of all beasts.”

“I .. uhh .. it’s .. what’s wrong with yer face?” Romsca stuttered in a less than tactful manner.

The right side of the mouse’s face was white that intersected jaggedly with her gold fur. Wherever the white had touched her, faint scared latticed their way down and across her cheek and forehead. Romsca didn’t thnk she had ever seen so many scars on any one creature .. and that was saying something.

“Are ya .. ok?”

Sayna smirked. “Yea. Everybeast’s been asking me that, I guess I look pretty hideous, but honestly, I don’t feel any different. Just tired. Bloodwrath takes your strength away pretty quickly, and it takes a good while to replenish it.”

Romsca couldn’t help but be confused. “But why are ya white?”

“I’m dying.” Sayna’s tone became serious again. “Oh don’t look at me like that, I knew this had to happen at some point, and besides I think I told you this before. Now that I’ve found you, my successor, I really don’t have any purpose left here.”

“I’m not ready to be any woodland mouse hero’s successor!” Romsca hissed. “I can barely keep my skin in one piece, and besides, my country needs me!”

Sayna sighed. “Stop overreacting. I didn’t say I was going to die in the next five minutes. Just in the next few seasons. I don’t know how long, really. All I know is that my hair has very little power left, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

Romsca instinctively touched her braid, and Sayna’s black eyes seemed to get even darker. “Don’t you dare. Don’t even think about it. Let me make it very clear that I forbid you to use any of your hair on me entirely.”

The two glared at each other for a moment, before Romsca looked away. She didn’t say anything, and Sayna rubbed her forehead. “Just .. don’t.”

Romsca could hear the little voice nibbling at the back of her mind, telling her that a mouse, and especially a mouse she’d captured, no matter what events had transpired, had no authority over her. Still, Sayna had a way of being very disagreeable when defied, and after seeing her in action, Romsca chose to stay silent. That was not to say she wasn’t still of the mindset her idea was a valid one, and from the look in her eyes, Sayna seemed to know it.

“I know what you’re thinking. I’ve thought it too, but forget it right now. Your hair is not to be taken lightly.”

“Wow, really?” Romsca snorted. “I won’er why? Oh yea, I’m a zombie an’ cutting even a piece brings me an agonizing death. It ain’t really me greatest desire ta cut it.”

Sayna’s glare was one of the most piercing Romsca had ever had to deal with. It almost made her think of Ublaz’s, though his cut into your soul as smooth as silk and sent shudders up and down your spine. Sayna’s just ruthlessly slashed in and left a beast feeling unsettled and invisibly wounded.

Romsca got a prolonged, smoldering look that made her feel .. uncomfortable at best. “Just don’t try it. Don’t cut it anymore unless you have no choice. Heaven knows you’ll probably need all of it, with the path you follow.”

Part of her desired most entirely to agree, but she did no more than shrug and turn to the table. At that point, she noticed quite a few of the other beasts sitting around it were looking at the ferret and the mouse.

Scratch that, they all were. The nerves near Romsca’s spine seemed to squirm subtly beneath her skin with a cold, irritating tingling. She’d always hated having beasts she didn’t know or didn’t like stare at her unconditionally. But still, they could stare all they wanted, she didn’t plan on explaining. Apparently Sayna had the same mindset, as the mouse fell to eating what was on her plate.

In the few moments it took for the others to return to eating and their own conversations, Romsca realized how ravenous she was. She’d been running on nothing but adrenaline for a solid twenty-four hours or longer, long enough she’d become oblivious to the numbing emptiness in her gut.

But the good thing was the dragons seemed very fond of meat, and meat was what she craved most at this point. Romsca fell to the nearest dish with a will, barely noticing or caring that the fish she was devouring was quite under-done. In fact, there was a back-taste of blood. Had the dragons even cooked this at all? Did dragons know how to cook?

Romsca couldn’t say she cared much. She liked her fish cooked better than this, but to be honest it could have been worse. It could have been burned black or something, and besides, a little blood never hurt anybeast. Well .. not any vermin, anyway ..

She looked up, noticing the woodlanders were sticking to what looked like stewed bamboo, rice cakes, and some sort of cheese. So the dragons could cook when they had a mind to .. maybe they just liked their meat raw. It didn’t appall Romsca much, after all, sushi involved basically raw meat and it was amazing. On the other paw, the abbotmouse looked extremely unenthused, and was avoiding anything less vegetarian than cheese with determination.

While the dining hall was filled with conversation, there wasn’t a whole lot at the furbeast’s table. Shui and Rocks talked easily enough, but really, everybeast else just seemed awkward and depressed. The squirrelmaid and one of the shrews were conversing, but the rest sat in silence. As lively as their surroundings were, the silence shrouding them was thick. Thick enough it made Romsca nervously itch the back of her neck and try to focus on her food.

She finished the fish she had chosen, and looked around for something else that looked appetizing. Plates didn’t seem to be a staple in the Vale of Dragons, there were central dishes in the middle of the table and everybeast just sort of took what they wanted, ate it with their bare paws, and repeated that process. Romsca had to wonder how they ate soup .. if soup was even part of their diet.

She grabbed a couple of rice cakes, taking a large bite of one. While rice cakes were notoriously bland, these had a surprising and pleasant spark of flavor to them. Romsca couldn’t quite place what it was, but it was savory and a bit tart.

“Here, try this out.” She handed one to Xzaris, and he took a large bite, chewing appreciatively.

“That sup’osed ta be rice cakes? Tastes better’n ours.”

Clecky reached over the table, grabbing one off the serving plate and cramming it into his mouth, mumbling something to the effect of ‘I better try one then, wot?’ though it came out in a muffled scarfing noise, so it was hard to tell.

Romsca looked up, scanning the table, and in spite of all the movement around her, her quick eyes caught sight of something foreign to the rest of the chaotic hall. It was Lutran, walking in from the side of the room facing the table she sat at, and he wasn’t alone.

Romsca froze, because she knew the blonde otter walking beside and a little behind him. She had changed greatly, but she was still easily recognizable. In that second, it did occur to Romsca that Grath had grown up, and the image of the bleeding, dirty little girl was replaced by a full-grown otter.

She did look more formidable now, with armor, a scar across the bridge of her nose, and a long knife at her side. The woodlanders were on the opposite side of the table to Romsca, so they did not see the otter who was supposed to be dead.

How had she escaped Ublaz? Nobeast in her situation had ever outwitted the emperor .. excepting Lutran, but he had very different circumstances. She had been taken to her execution, Romsca was sure of that. And Ublaz never made the same mistake twice.

Grath suddenly met her stare several feet from the table, and stopped still, returning it. Her emerald eyes widened in recognition, and she took a small step back, expression wary. Lutran turned to look at her, than glared balefully at Romsca, as if she was to blame for all of .. whatever had happened.

There was a sudden squeak of pure fright as Tansy noticed Grath, and the rest of the woodlanders jerked around, tensed to see some vicious monster .. after all, they were surrounded by dragons. Durral scrambled to his feet, as Martin jumped up too, mismatched eyes wide. Cracklyn and the shrew brothers sat frozen.

Tansy tried to speak, but her voice didn’t seem to be working, so she threw herself forward, hugging Grath tightly. “They .. said you .. were killed!”

The otter was obviously overwhelmed, and tried to stroke Tansy’s hair, only to draw her paw back quickly as she felt the hedgehog’s spikes. “Uh .. yea. That almost happened. I’m ok though.”

Martin slowly grinned, shaking his head. “We were sure .. even the pirates said they couldn’t save you.”

Romsca looked down at this, not wanting to meet Lutran’s gaze, which was sure to be accusatory. Grath reached the abbotmouse, smiling wearily. “Well .. at least you’re alive Father Abbot .. and Sayna too .. Sayna .. what happened to you?”

The old mouse shrugged, changing to subject. “I was worried for you, Grath. Honestly, I was starting to believe we’d lost you for good.”

Grath shook her head, sighing, “I’m just glad you’re all alive .. but where’s Hood? And Inbar? Did they ..”

“No, no, don’t worry.” Durral grabbed her paw. “They were hurt, but they are recovering. They just aren’t well enough to move about is all, they’re in the sickbay.”

“Oh.” Grath’s sigh was relieved.

Rocks looked at Lutran, asking, “Who iz this?”

Lutran smiled, about the first honest smile Romsca had seen on his face, ever. “Rocks, Shui, this is my sister. Our sister, Grath.”

Grath looked awkward, but Shui grinned widely, her smile curving up behind her eyes and causing a few flinches from the assembled furbeasts. “I have a zizter? For real? Thiz iz awezome, I can finally do ziztery ztuff with zomeone!”

Grath grinned a little nervously. “Uhh .. sure?”

“Great! Cauze they all think mud bathz and zcale color and jewelry are zizzy.” She gave Rocks and Lutran a meaningful glance.

“Right ..” Grath looked like she was trying to take it all in, but couldn’t keep up.

Durral took Grath’s arm. “Come and have some dinner my daughter, you must be starving.”

“It’z breakfazt.” Rocks intervened, but nobeast really paid any attention.

As the abbotmouse led Grath over to the table, she met Romsca’a gaze again, stammering, “Father .. who is she?”

Romsca felt a spark of indignation flow through her veins at this, and her words came out before she could think to hold them in. “I can speak ya know.”

“Not really.” Lutran sneered under his breath, but his mockery of her accent wasn’t missed.

Grath stammered, asking directly this time, “Who .. are you?” For some reason, Romsca’s brain was way ahead of her mouth. “Uh .. don’t ya .. remember me at all?”

After all the nightmares the otter had tormented her in, all the visions of agony and death, couldn’t she at least have the decency to remember her? It was a rather foolish thought .. just because Grath had tormented Romsca’s dreams didn’t mean it had been vise versa as well. But Romsca was thinking quite a few foolish thoughts as of late.

“I .. I know you from the raid.” Grath chose her words carefully, as if Romsca was some feral beast that could attack her at any moment. “So .. yes. But .. why? Why did you lie about me to that rat .. save me .. and then .. leave me?”

Romsca hadn’t been expecting that, honestly, she wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting anyway. Perhaps Grath had meant it only as a question, but it struck a chord of guilt. She had just walked away. True, there wasn’t much more she could have done .. anything else would have led to the crew or the Monitors finding the otter, but that .. hurt. At the time it was something good in a ocean of nightmares, and Romsca suddenly realized she’d been dumb enough to blindly see it as about the kindest thing she’d ever done.

She’d even used it as an argument against Lutran, like it was some wonderful thing. But it wasn’t. All she’d done was walk away.

Romsca’s shoulders slumped, and she couldn’t meet Grath’s gaze. “I swear there weren’t more I could do, not with the Monitors an’ all.”

She honestly wasn’t sure she believed that.

“But why?”

“I was just a kid, doin’ anythin’ else woulda probably ..”

“No.” Grath interrupted. “That’s not what I meant. Why did you do it?”

Romsca realized all eyes were on her .. and in Xzaris’ case, ears. “Uh .. well .. ya looked just like I felt.”

She sighed. “A lotta messed up things had happened. I’d let me dad’s pearls get stolen, condemnin’ him ta death .. I’d let me friend get hurt, I’d let two prisoners escape, I didn’t know what would happen next. I was scared .. an’ when I looked at ya, I saw the same thing in yer eyes. I just .. couldn’t kill ya. I’d never killed before. I couldn’t even tell on ya.”

Romsca realized her eyes felt strangely wet, almost like tears, and she forced them away. That moment was something she hated to relive. She met the otter’s gaze again, shaking her head. “I’m sorry it happened. It was wrong. Alla the stuff me family put yers through was wrong. But all I can say .. is sorry. Because I can’t bring any a it back.”

Lutran’s eyes snapped hatefully, but Grath just looked upset. “You killed our parents .. our family!”

“I know ..”

Xzaris interrupted Romsca. “Ya did not! Ya know good’n well neither a us took a life on that raid. I’m sick a everybeast blamin’ ya when ya didn’t do any a it!”

His silky gray and black ears were pinned, and Romsca shook her head. “Please mate .. this is my problem.”

Xzaris looked like he really wanted to disagree, but he growled under his breath and didn’t say anything else.

Sayna spoke up. “From what I understand, Romsca was not directly responsible for any of that.”

Lutran snarled. “So it was her father who did it, the filthy spawn of Hellgates are both the same!”

“No.” Arashi stood up, eyes flashing with pure fury. “Like it or not .. it was her father that did that. Me husband was the one who attacked those otters, he led that raid, so … he is the one who is responsible. And he was killed by the very beast who ordered him to do it. Ublaz.”

Arashi glared Lutran down. “Leave me daughter be.”

Romsca honestly didn’t know what to do .. why were the others sheltering her? “I can ..”

Xzaris suddenly grabbed her arm, and she jerked her head around to stare at him. He hadn’t bothered to brush his hair back since he didn’t need to see, and it was covering his eyes. But his voice was filled with certainty. “Ya can’t do it all, jist let yer mother stand up fer ya. This is her choice.”

Romsca slowly sat back down, looking around the table tensely, waiting for the outburst she was sure would come. She was amazed by Xzaris’s sense of calm .. normally things like this made him silent and nervous, but he seemed completely sure of himself.

Arashi and Lutran glared each other down for a few moments, before the black otter snapped, “You can’t give me orders pirate wench, why not let your daughter stand up for herself?”

“Because she’s put up with ye long enough.” Arashi’s eyes were dangerously narrow. “And so have I.”

Grath just looked confused and upset, and suddenly, Lutran seemed to notice it. He tossed his head. “Tch, I can treat you how I want. You’re not even worth my time.”

His furious gaze told he was lying, that he would have liked to rip Arashi apart, but he didn’t want to keep upsetting his sister. So he just sat down, motioning Grath should too. She looked at him warily as she sat, sighing heavily. Romsca really did feel sorry for her, with a brother like Lutran. She would pity almost anybeast with relatives like him, one of the singularly worst creatures she knew, up there with Ublaz and Cheng.

Rocks and Shui looked at each other, then at Lutran, but he wouldn’t meet their gazes. Arashi forced her lips to close and hide her bared fangs, but from the look on her face, Romsca guessed Lutran’s desire to rip her apart was whole-heartedly mutual. The ferret sat down, taking a deep breath to help quell her anger.

The woodlanders looked uncomfortable .. very much so, but they remained silent. Really, there wasn’t much they could say.

The dining hall was not so fully occupied anymore, as a lot of the dragons had finished eating and left. The silence that resulted wasn’t comforting. Romsca was glad when it was broken moments later, by horse hooves. A black horse trotted in, sliding to a stop in front of the long table Lord Isan was sitting at. “Milord, it’s Tai and Ting .. and they seem really upset about something.”

The horse’s voice carried around the hall readily, as did Isan’s as he coughed on what he was eating coupled with a groan. “Those two, really? What iz it thiz time?”

Shui flopped down on the table, moaning, “Not Tai and Ting! Zeriouzly, why now of all timez?”

Both Rocks and Lutran looked glum .. or in Lutran’s case, more disgusted than anything.

“Who are Tai and Ting?” The abbotmouse dared to ask, out of confusion.

Rocks sighed. “Only the mozt annoying beingz on thiz izland .. you’ll zee. And you’ll wizh you hadn’t.”

Shui didn’t lift her head and long neck off the table as she groaned something that sounded like, “Pleaze kill me now! Zpare me the headache, zomebeazt.”

There was a sudden fluttering, and Romsca jerked her head up. She’d heard of bats, but had never seen any until now. But these things fit the description, flitting around the dining hall’s tall ceiling and each finding separate rafters to latch onto and hang from. There were about seven in all, varying shades of brown, black, and white, with gold and silver jewelry adorning their thick necks and rings in their large, disproportionate ears.

Isan left his seat, walking out into one of the main isles between the tables to be underneath the visitors. His voice sounded thinly tolerant. “Tai, Ting, do you have a complaint again?”

One of the bats let go of its rafter, righting mid-fall and darting this way and that in front of Isan’s snout. “Yes, we have bone to pick with you! You trespass on Deathbringer land!”

“I azzure you,” Isan sounded remotely confused. “We have done no zuch thing.”

“You have! And use majesty Deathbringer’s title!” The black bat who was speaking had a high-pitched voice, one that was actually rather amusing for the first several seconds. Then it started to become grating.

Isan flicked his long tongue out, hooding his eyes and somehow reminding Romsca of a bullfrog .. an unimpressed one. “I care not for your title Tai. Now what haz happened?”

Another bat swooped down from the ceiling, as black as the first. “You have put fat boat in our cave! Filled with stupid pirates! We cannot go hunt, they make big fire thing in cave! Make us blind! Majesty Deathbringers are angry at this!”

Isan raised one of his eye ridges. “I haven’t zent any piratez or boatz to your cave, I know nothing of thiz.”

Tai squeaked angrily. “You lie! You have pirates here, and more than just pirate son!”

“They are fugitivez from the zity, and they are all that are with uz. I know of no otherz.”

“We not care .. you get rid of pirates and fire thing in our caves, and you do it quickly!” The two bat leaders were determined .. and demanding. “Until you do, we eat here. You make us breakfast and all other meals until pirates are gone!”

Isan flattened his finned ears, and Ting swooped down next to her brother. “Yea, and if they not gone by tomorrow, we bring whole tribe here until you kill them all! Sink fat boat, put out fire thing, and kill all the pirates. Leave them for us though, we drink their blood, you not eat!”

“Iz there anything in it for uz?” Isan sighed begrudgingly.

“No!” Tai flapped his wings faster. “You send pirates to cave, you get them out! Nothing for you!”

“For the lazt time, juzt becauze I have furbeaztz here, doez not mean I zent any to Whizpering Cavernz.” Isan sounded frustrated, and bordering on anger. “I zometimez wonder why we have allianze with you. Your mother waz worth something, maybe I do thiz for her, eggzit her little bratz and their whimz.”

A soft brown bat fluttered down, voice more reasonable, almost begging. “Please sire, just get them out. Take boat and things on it, we not care.”

Ting snapped. “Who made you majesty Deathbringer? You shut mouth, I do talking here!”

“We do talking here!” Tai countered. “You not majesty alone!”

Isan rolled his eyes as they argued back and forth. All of a sudden, Romsca felt Xzaris’s paw clamp her arm. His words came out as a gasp. “Rasconza!”

Romsca froze, a cold feeling washing over her. Rasconza. There had been no sign of him in the city, and word on the street was he had not returned as of a few days ago. He didn’t have the pearls, there was no way he could have the pearls, which meant he’d be trying to hide from Ublaz and ...

Isan’s voice broke through her thoughts. “Fine, we’ll kill them! Juzt zhut all your mouthz before I dezide to make one of you my dezzert!”

Silence fell over the hall, and Isan snapped, “Lutran, gather five guardz and zcout what iz there. Report back and tell me what to expect .. do not let yourzelvez be zeen.”

Lutran sighed, but nodded, saying something to Grath before he stood and walked quickly to the doorway out of the dining hall. Romsca looked at Xzaris, asking, “What’re we gonna do! If it’s him ..”

“We can’t let ‘em kill him!” Xzaris scrambled to his knees, calling in the general direction of Lord Isan, “Wait!”

The dragon turned his attention to the ferret, and Xzaris seemed to sense it, swallowing hard. “Ya can’t kill ‘em .. please!”

Isan raised an eyeridge. “Why zhouldn’t I?”

Romsca broke in, stammering, “He means, yer majesty, that .. whoever’s in that cave could be our friend!”

“Why zhould I care? You are the onez who have done a favor for uz, not them.”

“He’s just as much against Ublaz as us!” Romsca changed her tactic, reliezing her first approach had been entirely stupid. “He’s a good capt’n and knows what he’s doin’ in war .. I’ll betcha anythin’, if it is him, that he’s settin’ up a secret camp so he can launch attacks on the emperor and the city.”

Isan looked a little more interested, but ultimately unconcerned. “It iz juzt one zhip, one captain and crew. What can he really do for uz?”

“Cause we kin sail fer ya.” Xzaris leaned forward. “Well .. Romsca an’ him anyway. Tagether, those two could take on any one capt’n inna imperial fleet, I’d bet me life on it!”

“Hm. What if it’z not your friend?”

Romsca shook her head. “It might not be .. but I can’t thinka any other capt’ns who’d have real reason ta lay anchor outside a the bay, and inna cave no less.”

Isan blinked. “What reazon would this friend of yourz have, in that caze?”

Everybeast in the immediate vicinity was watching her again .. except the bats, who were making sort work of what was left of breakfast.

“I ain’t sure how ta explain it .. at least .. not inna short way. About mid-spring, Ublaz sent me, an’ Xzaris, an’ our other friend Rasconza out ta find his pearls .. I mean, the Pearls a Lutra. It was .. a sick game a his, an’ the wager was the one who found the pearls kept their life. The other two would die. We didn’t have’a choice about it, he sent his Monitors with us ta make sure we returned, pearls or no pearls.”

Shui curled her lip. “That’z zo mezzed up .. all for a bunch of pearlz? Doezn’t he have pearlz already?”

Xzaris shook his head. “Not like this he don’t. They’re magic pearls, an’ Ublaz wants the whole set so he kin use their power to rule the world …”

“And kill every single woodlander.” Grath’s voice was soft as she rubbed an arm nervously. “At least .. that’s what he told me. But my family’s pearls aren’t magical, I’ve seen them .. they don’t .. glow or something. And anyway, doesn’t he already have them?”

She glanced at Romsca for a moment, before looking away.

Romsca really didn’t feel like this was the best time to reveal the pearls were in her satchel. Durral looked at her questioningly, and she gave him a long stare, wishing she could tell him to please keep his mouth shut. He seemed to get the drift.

She cast a glance at Sayna, but the old mouse didn’t seem fazed or even concerned. The ferret turned back to Grath, shaking her head. “No. Me father .. failed ta bring them ta him. But the point is this. Rasconza’s hidin’ because he didn’t find the pearls, he couldn’t of. So there’s no way he would go back ta the city now. But this is his home, an’ I just don’t see him abandonin’ it.”

“Interezting logic.” Isan admitted. “But how do you know he doez not have the pearlz?”

Romsca really wanted to kick herself. Hard. “Uh. Well, even if he did he wouldn’t wanna give ‘em up. They’re .. kinda possessive.”

She hoped Isan hadn’t heard the hesitation in her voice as she scrambled for an answer .. but there was no such luck. The dragon looked from her, to Xzaris, and back to her again. “Why don’t you two come with me. I will zpeak to you about thiz in private … Zhui, Rockz keep an eye on thoze lozerz.”

He gave the bats an unapologetic and meaningful glance, before turning and walked for the far side of the room. Romsca followed him, wondering what she was even going to say, and Xzaris just did his best to keep up.

Isan stopped a good distance from the others, definitely out of earshot. “Zo. What were you trying to hide from the otherz?”

Romsca mentally cursed the dragons uncanny observation skills. “Um .. well, I’m not sure how to put this.”

“Do your bezt.” Isan had no intention of letting her off the hook, and Xzaris was looking at her with bewildered interest.

“Ok .. look. These pearls are .. dangerous. Really dangerous. They’ve caused wars .. civil wars .. in Grath’s holt, long ago. An’ from what I gather .. over half the holt killed each other.”

Isan frowned. “Lutran haz zaid nothing of thiz.”

“Trust me, it happened.” Romsca insisted, digging in her satchel and pulling out the heavy history book. “It’s all in here .. the History a Holt Lutra. I donno if Lutran even .. knows about it.”

And if he did, he’d never admit it .. She added, mentally.

Isan took the book, rotating it over and over in his slender claws. “Where did you get thiz?”

His voice was rather suspicious. Romsca quickly explained. “While I was lookin’ fer the pearls, I found it in some a Holt Lutra’s caves .. they’re empty now, an’ it was just layin’ there. I read it .. an’ learned some things I didn’t know either.”

Isan opened the book, and it fell open at the place Romsca had looked at the most .. the double-spread of the Sampetrain raider. The dragon looked confused for a moment, then flipped through several more pages, being careful not to shred the paper with his claws. He stopped at one of them, spreading the pages out flat. “Are theze the pearlz you zpeak of?”

Romsca nodded slowly. “Yea. That’s them.”

Isan didn’t say anything for a moment, just looked at the picture of the pearls in contemplative silence. It was in fact, a few moments before he spoke again. “I wizh I could zee them.”

Romsca felt a shudder run down her spine as the thought of Lask and what he had done to her crossed her mind. She did not want Isan to do the same thing.

He looked up, closing the book. “But I feel like you have avoided my question .. what were you trying to hide?”

“I .. know Razconza couldn’t a found the pearls .. cause I did.” She gave in. She was going to have to give in sometime.

Xzaris stared at her .. or in reality, jerked his head in her general direction and pricked his ears forward. “Ya what?? Ya never told me that!”

“I got distracted, ok?” Romsca defended herself. “It’s been a real freakish week.”

She paused, before sighing, “But yea. I found the pearls.”

Isan slowly cocked his head. “Where are they?”

“In my satchel.” Romsca winced. She might as well just get this over with.

“What?” Xzaris made a very odd face. Sort of a mix of disbelief and wondering if Romsca was at all sane in any way. “Ya’ve been wearin’ that satchel in an’ outa the city!”

It was stupid, it was .. exceedingly stupid, and Romsca knew it, so she just blurted, “Where else was I s’pposed ta put them? Honestly leavin’ them here coulda been just as bad!”

If Lutran found them, her mind added. Or any of the dragons.

Isan raised one eye ridge. “Zhow them to me, then.”

“No!” Romsca blurted, before inhaling and meeting the dragon’s hardening gaze. “I mean .. I would. But I don’t wanna bring death upon ya! An .. an us.”

“Explain.” Isan was looking her over in a sort of .. dangerous manner.

Romsca sighed. “These pearls .. I’ve seen what they do ta beasts. They are cursed, they’re deadly, an’ they can make a creature turn on their best friend. I .. I looked at them. An’ I felt that .. the desire .. ta keep them. Ta kill anybeast in the way a that. The feelin’ they could make me .. perfect. An’ that I’d murder anyone in me way a bein’ that.”

Her voice was desperate. “Anybeast who looks at them is cursed .. me dad was executed, Flairnose an’ Graylunk killed each other .. Xzaris got blinded .. the otters a Holt Lutra torn each other ta shreds in civil war .. is it worth that?”

Isan hesitated, before asking carefully. “How do I know you’re not lying?”

Romsca let herself drop to her knees before the dragon, clenching her claws against the floor. “Ya just gotta trust me! I don’t want what happened before ta happen again .. an’ that’s in both our best interests! For yer people .. they need ya, an’ they need ya in yer right mind. If ya insist, I will not withhold them from ya .. but please! Some beasts have a resistance ta them, but I donno what makes the difference, an if’n ya don’t …”

She felt Lask’s claws ripping into her back again, and shuddered.

The was a long moment of silence, before lord Isan spoke again. “Who do they really belong to? Not you. Holt Lutra .. zo my zon Lutran.”

Romsca jerked her head up, teeth clenched together. “Please milord .. not him! Anybeast but him .. he’s already crazy!”

Isan frowned, but sighed in resignation. “Yez, he haz been out of line lately. I guezz you are right .. if you are right about thiz magic. Zo give them to hiz zizter .. at leazt for the time being.”

“What if’n his sister goes crazy?” Xzaris pointed out.

“What if zhe goes crazy?” Isan pointed toward Romsca. “It’z all the zame at that point.”

Romsca stood up. “He’s right .. an’ he’s gotta good point ta. I’ll give them back ta Grath. I don’t want them anyway.”

She cast a glance across the room, over at where the otter was eating. “I just .. donno how ta speak ta her. What’m I s’pposed ta say .. ‘Oh here’s the pearls me family killed yers fer .. sorry about that. Also I stole yer abbot getting’ them an’ got ya stuck on a island filed with pirates an’ .. stuff.’”

She finished lamely, having intended to say lizards, but recalling who she was talking to. Isan either didn’t guess or didn’t care. “I’ll leave that up to you. Juzt ztay here .. I’ll have her come to you.”

“Ya sure .. cause she looked kinda tired ..” Romsca broke off as Isan looked at her challengingly.

“Would you rather give them to me?”

Romsca gulped, shaking her head. “No .. sorry milord. I’ll do it.”

“Good. And I will deal with our .. vizitorz.” He looked over at the bats.

“What ‘bout Rasconza?” Xzaris reminded him before he could walk away.

The dragon shrugged. “I’ll wait until Lutran returnz with hiz report before I make any decizionz.”

Xzaris nodded, though he still looked understandably worried. Romsca said nothing, keeping her head averted as if she didn’t really want to look at anybeast. There was silence, at least between the two of them, until Xzaris asked, “Ya really found the pearls?”

“Yea.” Romsca’s voice was regretful.

It was awkward, and Romsca hated feeling that way around Xzaris. “I .. woulda told ya, it’s just .. things happened. Also I didn’t .. really wanna show nobeast. Sorry mate.”

He sighed, shaking his head, “I’m jist shocked ya found ‘em .. Graylunk an’ Flairnose could’a taken ‘em anywhere. I thought the whole mission was nothin’ but crazy.”

Romsca shook her head. “That bout sums it up.”

She cast a glance over at Lord Isan, who had walked over to the ottermaid and was talking to her. Grath, Romsca mentally corrected herself. She needed to think of her by her name.

The otter was listening to the dragon, and suddenly she drew back, looking afraid. She looked across the distance between herself and Romsca nervously, not wanting to meet the ferret’s gaze. Isan looked at her expectantly, until she got up and began slowly walking toward Romsca, eyes downcast.

It didn’t help Romsca’s state of mind at all, and she felt even more uncomfortable. This was worse than killing a beast … Romsca winced at that thought. Of course the otter was afraid of her, she was a monster, proven by the idea that had involuntarily crossed her mind.

Grath stopped several feet away, looking at the ground. Nothing was said, and Xzaris looked like he could feel the combined awkwardness of both Romsca and Grath. Who knew, maybe he could, with the way he’d been talking earlier. He cleared his throat, stumbling over his words. “Ya know … this really ain’t me business .. it’s ‘tween ya two, so I’ll jist give ya some privacy. I donno if I should really .. be here.”

He walked off as quick as he could with his staff, which wasn’t very quick. After he was out of earshot, Romsca looked up, swallowing. “I .. have somethin’ that’s yers.”

Grath seemed to be hiding behind her waterfall of golden hair, and her voice was muted. “What?”

“Uh, yea .. lemme jist ..” Romsca undid her satchel and dug in it, claws connecting with the case of pearls. She felt her paw tingle, and a familiar, awful tightening settled in her chest. Did she want to give them up? Could she give them up?

Anger settled in her heart, and she hated herself. She hated those pearls, but she also wanted them. Still, the feeling of desperation was not so strong as before, and Romsca thanked Ignasa for that. As she did, the weight lifted away and her mind felt clear again.

She pulled the large shell from her satchel, holding it forward and bowing her head. “They’re yers, not mine.”

There was a second of silence, and then a sharp gasp from Grath. “My family’s pearls! How? Where did you get these?”

“Why else do ya think I was in Mossflower?” Romsca muttered, as if it were obvious.

“Oh.” Grath’s voice was quiet. She slowly drew the case of pearls to herself, whispering, “Why did it have to be this way?”

Romsca didn’t imagine Grath was speaking to her, but she answered anyway. “I’ve asked meself that more times’n I can count. Ta think somethin’ so beautiful .. can be so destructive.”

Grath wiped the tears from her eyes, slowly undoing the clasp, and Romsca looked down. She didn’t want to see those things again.

Suddenly, Grath’s voice rang out, shaking somewhat. “What .. on earth?”

Despite herself, Romsca looked up, and stared in a mixture of fascination and horror. The pearls were not the way they had looked when she had last gazed upon them, shimmering pink. Well, they were, but a soft white light came from them, and both otter and ferret stared in utter amazement.

The pearls were glowing.



Chapter 31 Unknown Fate

TotO &#039;Overcome&#039;

Sayna training Xzaris

“What did you do to them?” Those were the first words out of Grath’s mouth after a moment of stunned silence.

Romsca was shocked enough by this new development, that she didn’t even think to be angry at the accusation, and her voice was simply baffled. “I don’t got a clue .. do they do this?”

Grath looked at her like she asked if she could bring her the moon. “How should I know?”

“Wull they’re yer family’s, I figured ya’d know.” Romsca stated simply, unable to tear her gaze away from the glowing pearls. They were captivating in their normal state, but now they were nothing short of mesmerizing.

“I don’t know anything about this!” Grath insisted, a little fear still in her voice, though she was just as fixated as Romsca. “You must have done something to them!”

It was almost as if she was trying to convince herself of this. Romsca shook her head. “I ain’t touched the case fer a week or somethin’, an’ I haven’t opened ‘em since I was in Mossflower. Back then they was normal.”

Grath shook her head, staring at them in wonder. “Then why would this just happen?”

There was a scuff beside Romsca, and Xzaris spoke, apparently not having gone very far. “Why is they glowin’ like that?”

“Ya can see them?” Romsca looked at him in surprise.

“As clear as if I weren’t never blinded, though I can’t see nothin’ else as such.” He shrugged, swiping the hair out of his eyes as if to get a better look.

Grath was looking at him confusedly, as if trying to make sense of that statement. She seemed to give up after a moment, turning her attention back to the wonder in her paws. “I’d been told the pearls had some sort of power, but why would it never show itself before now? I guess there was supposed to be a seventh ..”

She trailed off, looking at the two pirates, who stared back at her. Romsca felt a chill run down her spine as she started to understand what this could mean, and Xzaris spoke, a dread certainty in his voice. “He’s comin’ fer us.”

The blind ferret didn’t turn away from the pearls as he spoke. “If’n that’s true, the seventh’ll glow, and he’ll know the others is on the island. He’ll send everythin’ he’s got ‘gaist us, an’ it’s only a matter a time fer he kills us all.”

“Who?” Grath sounded rather distraught, as if she had a good guess.

Romsca grimaced. “Ublaz. He has the seventh pearl.”

Grath just stared at the two for a moment, before her legs buckled beneath her and she sat down hard, snapping the case shut as she did so. She stared blankly at nothing, muttering, “So it’s as I thought. It was so stupid .. so stupid to come here.”

Romsca didn’t know what to do, the otter looked like she’d snapped. From the look on Xzaris’s face, he was thinking the same thing.

Grath hugged the pearls tightly, and Romsca was pretty certain she was speaking to them. “You’re so pretty. You made me feel like I had a purpose. You gave me an adventure. Why did you betray me like this?”

She stared absently at the case. “Maybe it’s not your fault. No, it’s not your fault. Beasts kill each other because of you, but it wasn’t your choice. That couldn’t be what you wanted .. could it?”

She looked up at Romsca, repeating questioningly, “Could it?”

Romsca cringed, and shrugged, wishing she could say something wise and comforting, but feeling utterly stupid. After all, Grath was asking her what she thought a set of pearls wanted, and Romsca had never practiced comforting anybeast.

Grath looked down, tears slowly forming in her eyes. “It’s too much! I .. I just wanted to be something! I didn’t want more than that, but it’s all so wrong and I just .. want to sleep!”

She broke out in a thin, plaintive wail, burying her face in her paws. “Is sleep too much to want?”

Romsca looked at Xzaris for help, and he sighed, walking over to the otter and kneeling next to her. “Nah, sleep’s not too much ta want. Jist get up an’ we’ll take ya ta where ya kin sleep .. right Rom?”

He said it pointedly, and Romsca nodded with a sigh. “Right. An’ keep those pearls hidden .. here.”

She undid the black sash of silk that was around her waist, prying the case from Grath’s paws and wrapping it in the fabric before stuffing it back in the otter’s arms. “Don’t let nobeast see them til we figure out what’s goin’ on.”

Grath nodded dumbly as the two ferrets helped her to her paws, and Romsca wasn’t even sure she understood. Apparently two days of complete terror and almost no rest had taken their toll.

><><

Barranca and Shilo met the three on their way to the place they slept, and after asking a few questions, they went to find the others with orders to tell them where Grath had disappeared to. Barranca looked like he didn’t even want to know anymore.

Romsca and Xzaris found some blankets for Grath to use as a bed, and she fell asleep straight away. Romsca made sure to tuck the pearls next to her, hiding them in the sheets.

She made a mental note to make certain they weren’t found by anybeast and re-explain why to Grath when she was rested.

The two left the room, and Xzaris suggested they see Val, which suited Romsca fine. The healing chambers looked different in the night .. or the day .. or whatever it was supposed to be. Yanze was nowhere to be seen, instead they were met by a Zhanshi who, for the nature of his species’ size, was quite small. He was about the size of Shui, but then, the spines along his back were smaller and blunter. From all she had learned and observed, Romsca took that as a sign of youth.

“I zuppoze you wizh to zee your freindz?” From his business-like manner, Romsca wondered if he was young after all.

He shrugged. “Juzt do not dizturb them. I’m Zhell, Yanze’z apprentize.”

Romsca nodded, deciding not to puzzle over the mystery of dragons anymore and walked over to Val’s hammock. The vixen was still asleep, her white fur taking on a reddish glow from the firestones that softly illuminated the area.

At that moment Xzaris stumbled against one of the rock ‘beds’, if they could be called that, and he lost his grip on his staff. It clattered noisily to the floor, and Val shifted in her sleep, mumbling and blinking her eyes open.

So much for not disturbing anybeast. Xzaris found his staff again, muttering something that sounded rather like ‘harder’n keepin’ a crew in line ..’

Val blinked for a moment, before grinning. “Guys! Yer ok .. they said ya was, but I weren’t sure cause ya didn’t come. Ya looks awful sis, what’s with the rings under yer eyes? Ya’ve better been sleepin’! Hey Xzaris, I like yer staff .. ya have that before? Geez I can’t remember. I was so outa it but I’m feelin’ better now .. me legs don’t hurt none, though I can’t move ‘em either. Hey, what actually happened inna city? Ya know, with everythin’? I asked Yanze but she didn’t know. Ugg I wanna get up so bad!”

Xzaris grinned back. “Wull at least we know yer still yerself, an’ that’s a good sign.”

Romsca did her best to answer Val’s question about the city, stating, “We freed all the woodlanders, two of them was hurt purty bad, apparently Lutran saved his sister, an’ Shui melted some Monitors.”

“Oh yuck! Why did ya have ta remind me a that part .. now I’m gonna have nightmares.” Val groaned.

Romsca shrugged, regretting recalling that fact herself. She continued, explaining, “So we escaped in some boats an’ when we got ta the ship Jian had stolen a bunch more. I guess Shui made him put some back, an’ we got back here.”

Val sighed. “Yea. I think I remember some a that now.”

She was silent for a moment, before asking, “Hey Xzaris .. now that yer not dead, an’ all, should I really give that letter ta Rom? The one ya sent with Shilo? Cause I mean, ya did say ..”

Xzaris looked blank for a moment, before a flush appeared across his cheeks and nose. “Uh .. nah .. it’s not real .. relevant anymore since I ain’t dead. Jist .. kin I have it back ..”

He suddenly seemed to think of something. “Ya didn’t read it did ya?” “Errrm ..” Val grinned sheepishly. “Maybe jist a little .. it’s in me satchel down there ..”

“I sealed that!” Xzaris protested, kneeling and finding the satchel in question with fumbling paws.

“I know ..” Val sounded apologetic. “But I forgot ta ask ya sooner, an’ .. I was bored layin’ here, so I figured I’d jist take a quick peek. I resisted fer about thirty minutes .. but I couldn’t hold out.”

Xzaris looked severely miffed. “I’m so prouda ya. What kinda friend reads somethin’ like that? Yer demoted from first mate, ya hear?”

“Aww ..” Val sighed. “Guess it don’t really matter anyway since I can’t get outa bed.”

Xzaris pulled the scroll in question out of Val’s satchel, tucking it into his own. He fished around in the vixen’s satchel until he found a tightly wrapped parcel and glared at Val. “What if’n ya’d lost this?”

Romsca looked confused, asking, “Why don’t ya want me ta read it now?”

“It’d jist sound awkward an’ stupid now that I ain’t dead.” Xzaris explained, a little too quickly. “Jist me mopin’ is all. Don’t wanna unduly depress ya. Also ya know me writin’s awful .. it was a last ditch effert ta say goodbye is all.”

“Oh.” Romsca honestly wasn’t that concerned with it, there were, after all, more important things to worry about.

Val cleared her throat, changing the subject. “Ya haven’t heard nothin’ bout Rasconza, have ya?”

“Uh, not as such.” Romsca answered, wishing Val had not thought of that.

“Ya mean ya have?” The vixen asked eagerly.

Romsca sighed, shaking her head. “No, nobeast knows fer sure yet, jist hunches. Me own hunch is he ain’t returned ta the city yet.”

Val looked saddened. “We can’t let him go back ta Ublaz, not after all that’s happened.”

“I think he’s gonna do all he can ta stay away.” Xzaris made a face. “He knows what’s at stake.”

“Yea .. it’s jist .. the Monitors’n all.”

Romsca shrugged. “Well we know they ain’t invincible. An’ that’s .. some consolation.”

Val flopped back down, sighing. “Yea. Guess so.”

She looked up at the two, asking, “But if’n ya do learn somethin’, tell me, please?”

“Yea. Course.” Romsca sighed. “Look I donno what Lord Isan had planned fer us taday, but .. I wouldn’t wanna displease him, ya know.”

“Oh. Yea. No. Don’t be doin’ that.” Val insisted. “An’ sorry about the letter Xzaris, I’m soooo bored is all. I won’t tell nothin’.”

“Whatever.” He sounded sulky. “See ya don’t.”

“Here, read … this.” Romsca pulled a thick book out of her satchel. “But don’t mess it up, me dad gave me that fer me ninth birthday.”

Val nodded. “It’s safe with me. Letsee .. The Adventures a Captain Scarflank. Hmm, seems interestin’ enough ..”

She flipped the book open, muttering to herself as she read, a habit that had always maddened Romsca, who had mastered the art of reading silently at an early age. Xzaris spoke after a moment. “Well, at least ya found somethin’ fer her ta do. Come on, let’s go back ta the dinin’ hall.”

He started off in a random direction, before sighing and letting his ears droop. “Which way is the dinin’ hall?”

“Eh, I think I have a general idea.” Romsca started off, and Xzaris followed her .. he seemed to be becoming better at following beasts without having to hold onto them.

“It was wrong a Val ta read the letter, but ya sure was upset over it.” Romsca remarked, adding, “Not, a course, that I wouldn’t be. Yer jist not normally that .. erm .. vocal about it when somebeast does somethin’ like that. S’not really a bad thing, though.”

Xzaris grumbled. “Wull it weren’t meant fer her.”

Romsca shrugged. “Ha, yea, I’d probably tell her off worse than ya did. But .. I’m glad Xzaris. There for a bit .. wull I didn’t know what ya was thinkin’. After .. I couldn’t .. fix ya right.”

“How did ya do that?” Xzaris asked. “We haven’t had a chance ta talk since .. wull since we left. What happened ta ya?”

They were walking side by side along a wide, rail-less bridge arching high above the cave floor .. side by side because Romsca wanted to be certain Xzaris didn’t walk the wrong way and fall off. She shook her head as she responded. “Mate ya wouldn’t believe it all if’n I told ya, an’ I donno if I could tell it all inna day. But .. well, I changed a lot.”

She sighed. “Basically I found a flower a Icetor when I was lookin’ fer the pearls. Turns out they can .. sorta make ya immortal. I didn’t know that, so I just hid it in me cabin. But then there was a mutiny, we got blown off course .. and Lask got .. hungry. He demanded I feed him the prisoners, but I rallied the crew instead an’ we fought ..”

She looked down at her paws as she slowly stopped walking, in a beautifully tiled room. Xzaris stopped as well, and turned to face her .. it was hard to tell what expression he had on, but she knew he was listening. “We fought. But everybeast died. Raf .. Rubby .. they’re all gone, an’ I couldn’t stop it. A good capt’n pertects their crew, but I .. failed.”

Romsca was silent for a moment, before continuing. “It got ta the point where it was just me’n Lask. He got me on the ground, an’ .. purty much ripped me ta shreds. Only Ignasa held me life on this earth, cause I saw how much blood I lost afterwards .. I was soaked in it, an’ that’s not even considerin’ the gashes that lizard left in me. It was … horrifyin’. Anyway .. point is, the Abbotmouse somehow fed me the flower. I don’t remember that part, I’m just takin’ his word on it. When I came to I had crazy long hair .. an’ I’d chosen ta follow Ignasa. But apparently the flowers make me immortal, an’ now I guess I can save anybeast’s life .. though I have ta die doin’ it.”

“Oh.” Xzaris sighed. “Guess that mouse really did know what she was talkin’ about.”

“Yea. Sayna knows a lot more’n I ever gave her credit fer.”

The two resumed walking, and Romsca stated. “Still, I’m glad ya ain’t so .. depressed as before. An’ fer the record .. I don’t think yer crazy.”

Xzaris turned his head in her direction, and she caught a glimpse of his smile from under his wild hair. “Thanks.”

“Say, what’s with yer hair .. ya ever gonna tie it back again? I’d think havin’ it in yer face’d drive ya crazy.”

“Oh.” Xzaris brushed it back. “Thing is, light .. if’n it’s very bright at all, gives me headaches after a while a bein’ in it.”

Romsca scratched an ear. “Huh. Do ya have a spare sash or somethin’? Ya could use it as a blindfold, since ya .. ya know, can’t really see anyway.”

He paused, slipping his staff into the crook of his arm as he dug in his satchel. “Good idea. Donno why I didn’t think a it.”

He pulled out a burgundy cloth, sliding in under his bangs and tying it on. “We’ll have ta wait til it’s light ta see if’n it works. It looks weird, don’t it?”

Romsca didn’t feel like lying at that particular moment, so she nodded, then realized the gesture was ineffective. “Yea. But I’ll get used ta it, s’not a problem. Ya look kinda mysterious like that .. like a blind .. assassin or somethin’.”

She did her best to give him a compliment, really, it did give him an edgy look. Xzaris laughed, asking, “How would that even work?”

“I donno, it was just the first thing I thought a.” Romsca admitted. But it also made her think. “Ya know, we should train tagether.”

He cocked his ears to show his bewilderment, or incredulousness, because it could have been either.

Romsca insisted. “I’m serious, I saw how ya killed those rats inna city. Ya say ya have some sorta .. ability ta sense things. If we just practice, who knows, ya might get better. Maybe ya could even fight ‘gain, for real, cause I know ya hate havin’ me lead ya round.” “Wull it ain’t like that ..”

“Nah, I get it.” Romsca interrupted. “I’d feel the same .. ya wanna be able ta take care a yerself, ya wanna be free. An’ I want that fer ya too. So come on, let’s just try it .. if we fail, at least it wouldn’t be fer lack a tryin’. Don’t ya wanna know fer sure?”

Xzaris slowly grinned, fangs visible. “Yea.”

><><

Clecky went to visit Hood soon after breakfast, the news was the fox wasn’t coherent yet, but that didn’t mean he didn’t intend to check up on his friend.

The dragon palace .. or city .. or whatever it was, could be rather tricky to navigate. Clecky actually got pretty turned around before he found the healing chambers, but almost thirty minutes later than he intended, he arrived at his destination.

The hare was rather put out that he had gotten so lost, and chunnered about it under his breath .. though he stifled his complaints when he noticed a small Zhanshi watching him from a bed made of rock.

It flicked its tongue out at him, remarking, “You can visit, juzt don’t dizturb them.”

Clecky nodded in quick agreement. “Course not chap .. er .. or chapess.”

“If chap meanz male, it would be chap.” The dragon sounded droll.

“Righto .. it’s just .. a bit hard to tell for a fubeast, wot? Sorry chap.”

The Zhanshi rolled his eyes. “Juzt call me Zhell. I’m watching them for Yanze, zhe’z taking a break.”

He went back to looking at the scroll in his claws, and Clecky walked past him, being as quiet as possible.

Hood was still asleep, lying on a moss and blanket covered rock. His chest and part of his face were wrapped in bandages, covering his scars .. which, thanks to Ublaz, had become open wounds again. Clecky stood beside his bed, feeling rather helpless. He really wished Hood could wake up so he could chunner about how worried he was, but there was no such luck.

“Hey!”

A rather cheerful voice called from somewhere behind him, and he turned to see the red and white vixen sitting up in her hammock, her claws holding her place in a book.

Clecky wasn’t sure what she wanted, “Yes megel?”

She grinned. “I’m Val, Val Bloodpaws. Ya is a rabbit?”

“I’m no rabbit!” Clecky was indignant. “I am a hare. How is that so hard to understand?” Val lifted a paw in mock horror. “Gee, no need ta be so fussy. But seriously, there’s a difference?”

“Gaaahh .. Hrrrrgh .. mmmphle!” Clecky sputtered, making noises no normal beast could succeed at. “What’da you mean, is there a difference? Of course there’s a bally difference! I’m a hare!”

“Quiet pleaze!” Shell hissed, without looking up from his scroll.

Both beasts fell silent for a moment, before Clecky spoke again, this time in a lower tone. “I am a hare, not a rabbit.”

“Ooookay ..” Val raised an eyebrow. “I’ve alwuys had ta wonder though, what is the big diff’rence between a hare an’ a rabbit?”

Clecky looked a bit miffed, though he kept his voice down. “Well it’s quite obvious. You see, we’re ...”

He paused. He had never actually given the matter much rational thought. “Uh .. taller.”

“Wull that’s kind of dumb.” Val snorted in amusement.

“Oh lay off it.” Clecky grumbled, not liking to admit that he really didn’t know why hares were so offended at being called rabbits. “Just trust me, I’m not a bally rabbit, I’m a hare.”

Val smirked. “Ok, yer a hare. A funny hare.”

There was silence for a moment, before Val asked, almost coyly, “So yer that .. very attractive fox’s friend?”

“Very attractive?” Clecky looked blank. He had never met a girl who had referred to Hood in that manner.

Val grinned, shrugging. “Hey, I can’t help but notice he’d probably be purty hot if he weren’t wounded.”

“Uhhhh ..” Clecky was honestly at a rare loss for words.

“Anyway, what’s he like?” She pressed, grinning.

Clecky was bewildered. “Well, Hood doesn’t talk much .. but he’s .. nice deep down. He just doesn’t go out of his way to make friends, so most beasts think he’s not friendly, but it isn’t true, wot?”

The hare raised an eyebrow. “Why do you ask?”

“Weeell ..” Val shrugged. “I jist wanna know.”

Her shoulders slumped. “I already have a boyfriend, but ya see .. he might not come back. Don’t get me wrong, I hope he does!”

She insisted quickly. “But if he don’t .. I don’t wanna be ‘lone forever. That’s Rom’s thing, but it ain’t mine. An’ there ain’t many foxes round, so I jist wanna .. I donno .. have somebeast. Ya know? So I just wanna git ta know him, that’s all I’m sayin’.”

Val’s ears drooped. “I hate bein’ alone .. it’s scary an’ exhaustin’, I gotta have somebeast ta talk ta.”

Clecky had to reflect on how odd it was that he was talking to, and more importantly, completely understanding a pirate. “Yea. I know, wot? Being alone’s the worst.”

Val looked sad for one more moment, before rubbing a paw across her face, pricking her ears forward, and grinning again; every bit of depression banished, except for a soft shadow in her eyes. “But I ain’t gonna dwell on it. Conza’ll came back, I know. I just think yer friend’s cute, an’ I’d like ta git ta talk ta another fox.”

“Oh.” Clecky shrugged. “Well you’ll find he’s not one for conversations.”

“Ha, if I wanna talk ta somebeast, I kin git ‘em ta talk.” Val grinned. “Ya know what I mean.”

Clecky laughed. “Sure, I’m bally good at it myself. But even I can’t crack Hood most of the time, wot?”

Val smiled sweetly. “I bet ya anythin’ I kin git him ta talk ta me.”

“Hmm, I might take you up on that .. is ya a cook?” Clecky grinned jokingly.

“Sure am!” Val giggled. “What ya wanna bet? I’m good at games.”

“Huh ..” Clecky thought about it, and Val suddenly broke in slyly.

“Ya know what wasabi is?”

><><

Romsca ducked a wayward swipe from Xzaris’s long dragon knife, not even raising her own. She hadn’t really thought this through when she’d suggested it, and now she was seeing this was going to be hard … even impossible.

Xzaris growled under his breath, cocking his ears in her direction at her scraping footsteps that disturbed the dust of the torchlit training arena. He lunged forward, and again she easily sidestepped, bringing her blade up and deflecting his with a halfhearted clash.

The knowledge and prowess of an elite fighter was still very obvious in the gray ferret’s movements, he knew exactly what to do, he just couldn’t see where to aim his attacks.

Romsca carefully advanced, aiming for his blade and not him, for fear she would actually land an all too effective hit. There was a clash, and Xzaris expertly averted her strike to the side, assuming an easy stance, something that came naturally.

He did his best to retaliate with a thrust, but it swung wide and missed Romsca altogether. Xzaris stumbled forward as his knife struck nothing but air, and would have fallen to his knees if Romsca hadn’t caught him and steadied him on his feet.

“Hey, ya ok?”

Xzaris stood again, and she let her paws fall away. He scowled. “We ain’t getting’ nowhere with this.”

“Wull ..” Romsca sighed. “It ain’t like I’ve ever trained with a blind beast before. We’ll figure somethin’ out. Maybe ..”

If Xzaris could have glared at the ground, Romsca was pretty sure it would have a smoking hole in it right about now. “I’m gonna sit down fer a few minutes. Where’s the stand with me staff?”

Romsca sighed, turning him to face in the correct direction. “Ok. Just take a rest .. lemme think this through. Come up with an idea that’ll work.”

He walked over to the wooden stand with different weapons and his staff on it, feeling around until he found the item he was looking for. Romsca rubbed a paw down her face, groaning softly. This .. could work, couldn’t it?

She had seen him .. with her own eyes, how he killed those rats. Each strike had been precise and effective .. just as though he could see. Why was it so different from now?

The dragons’ training arena was huge, and on the ground floor, thankfully. Romsca looked down at the thick knife in her paw, before snarling and hurling it into a wooden target in pure frustration.

It sunk into the wood with a loud, splintering sound, and Romsca crossed her arms, closing her eyes. If she wanted to know how to help Xzaris, she needed to be able to see through his eyes .. no, not see at all.

She took a deep breath, jumping as Shui’s voice rang out. “Good throw.”

“Oh.” Romsca looked at her knife, imbedded near the center of the target. “Yea .. thanks.”

“Zo .. it’z not going well?”

“Nope. Not a chance.”

Shui’s long, naturally bladed tail dragged in the dirt behind her, creating a shallow furrow. “Well, I can’t zay I’m zurprized. You could azk Yanze to look at hiz eyez .. zhe’z one of the bezt healerz in the Vale of Dragonz.”

“Uhh .. thing is ..” Romsca looked down. “If the Flowers couldn’t do nothin’ .. I don’t think nothin’ can be done. It was .. different fer me, I got the flower right after I was wounded .. an’ he was in prison fer ‘bout twenty four hours after Ublaz .. did that. Sayna said that his eyes, wull part of them is just gone .. dead .. whatever. We could see fer sure though, I su’pose.”

Shui stopped walking, sitting down in front of Romsca. “How much do furbeaztz uze their eyez? I uze mine a lot, but dragonz alzo zmell, listen, and feel .. zometimez juzt as much.”

Romsca shrugged. “We .. listen and smell, yea, but our sight ..”

She sighed. “Without our sight, we can’t hardly do even the most basic tasks. Sight means a lot ta a furbeast.”

“Oh. Well you’re in a fix then.” Shui shrugged. “What do you think you can even teach him, in that caze?”

Romsca glared at the dragon. “I donno, I’ll figure somethin’ out, I alwuys figure somethin’ out. Mosta the time. Some a the time.”

Shui smiled. “I hope it workz. Why don’t you azk your mouze friend? The one who iz watching uz right now.”

“Huh?” Romsca looked up, scanning the area, until she noticed Sayna leaning against one of the pillars, standing in its long shadow.

She stood, walking toward the ferret, who sputtered. “What is ya doin’ here?”

“You’re my successor, are you not? I reserve the right to follow you.”

Romsca groaned. “Really?”

Sayna smirked, before looking serious again. “I’ve noticed you’re having a problem, and while I understand your desire to help a friend, I feel like .. how should I put it .. maybe this is not a path Xzaris can take.”

“Ya wasn’t there .. I saw what he did!” Romsca protested. “We was in battle, tryin’ ta escape the city after we rescued the woodlanders, an’ he killed two ratguards that attacked him. Not randomly, not outa luck, but with skill, and intention .. he knew where they were. He said as much .. couldn’t say how, but he just .. knew.”

Sayna looked curious, and Romsca continued. “I know he can do this! Wull .. I don’t know, but that’s not the only weird thing that’s happened .. he says he can feel things .. that ain’t normal. Things that ain’t really .. mortal even.”

Sayna cocked her head, stroking her chin with a paw. “Well then, I’ll go have a talk with him myself.”

She walked in the direction of Xzaris, sitting on a crate with his head bowed. “Tell you what, ask Shui for a duel.”

“What?” Romsca sputtered, stunned.

“You could use the practice .. you’ll have to fight lizards again, won’t you? I think it would be good for you.” “I .. I’ma capt’n ya know! I ain’t yer page or somethin’!” Romsca yelled after her, and Sayna just waved a nonchalant paw in her direction.

Shui grinned. “Do you want too?”

Romsca groaned, looking at the dragon, who winked. “I’ll go eazy on you.”

“Bilge-water.” Romsca grumbled as she nodded her unhappy acceptance.

><><

Xzaris heard the footsteps of the beast approaching him, and somehow, they seemed lighter than Romsca’s. “Rom? That ya?”

“No.” The voice was definitely not the ferret’s, it was far too refined. Xzaris recalled it as belonging to one of the woodlanders.

Its owner spoke again. “I am Sayna. I’m having Romsca practice with Shui for now, because I wanted to talk with you privately.”

“Um.” Xzaris frowned. “Did I do somethin’ wrong or .. what?”

There was a scraping and a thump as Sayna found a seat and sat on it. “No, I just want to ask some questions. Is that alright?”

Xzaris wasn’t sure why this mouse wanted to ask him anything, but he shrugged. “Why not?”

“So, to clear up the question of how I know this, I asked Romsca. Now, apparently you’ve been experiencing .. unusual things lately?”

Xzaris felt a little betrayed, but he grumbled, “Yea, what of it?”

There was a smile behind Sayna’s voice, Xzaris was certain of it. “No need to feel that way, she’s only trying to help you. Now, as you know, the mortal realm is not the only realm. You know there are the Shadow Fighters, who make deals with Malimore ..”

“But I ain’t ..” Xzaris protested, and Sayna cut him off.

“No, I know that. I know what it feels like in a Shadow Fighter’s presence, and I assure you, you aren’t one of them. I’m saying that in days past, Shadow Fighters were not the only beasts to be in close touch with the spirit realm .. there were also the Prophets. They were Ignasa’s, and he would lend them his power to do great things. Sadly, they’ve become increasingly rare .. I hardly dare to presume to call myself one, but I knew one of the greatest to ever live.”

Xzaris felt .. odd about this whole conversation. Was she serious .. she thought he had some sort of magical ability? “Wull .. but I ain’t .. magic or anythin’. An’ I ain’t no woodlander, ya kin see that much.”

Sayna smirked, or anyway, that’s what Xzaris guessed she was doing, going by the tone of her voice. “I find that has little to do with it, my mentor, and the greatest Prophet I’ve met in all my days, was a fox. And Prophets aren’t magic. They might seem mystical, or magical, but it has nothing to do with them. They are beasts who allow Ignasa to use them according to his will, and not theirs .. beasts who trust him completely.”

She sighed. “That’s why, even after a thousand years, I could never truly be one. I am still too strong willed.”

Xzaris didn’t know what to say to that, he was finding the mouse .. increasingly strange. “Uh .. wull .. ya think I’m one? Me? But I ain’t .. special or anythin’ like that. I never felt nothin’ like this til now, after I lost me sight.”

“Hmm.” She said it thoughtfully. “Nothing at all?”

“Nah.”

There was a pause. “But you are a follower of Ignasa?”

“I think so ..” Xzaris shrugged. “But I ain’t been fer long .. I donno how it works really, I jist .. didn’t wanna go ta Hellgates when I was dyin’ in prison, ya know? It was kinda outa desperation, but I ain’t sorry .. I just donno what I kin do anymore, now that I can’t see.”

Sayna sounded interested. “Tell me what you’ve experienced so far.”

“Not ta be rude but .. I don’t really know ya. At all ..”

Sayna sighed. “I understand this seems strange for me to ask this, as this is probably the first time we’ve talked, but I think, if I understood better what was going on, I might be able to help you. Still, I suppose it’s fair to ask, do you want my help?”

Xzaris found it very unsettling to not be able to see the beast that was speaking to him, he couldn’t even imagine what she looked like, as he’d never seen her. “Um .. not tryin’ ta be rude, but why would ya help me?”

“You seem to think that is something strange? Do I need a reason to help another?”

Xzaris felt dubious at least, and it must have showed in what little recognizable expression he could make. Sayna gave in. “Fine, Romsca is my successor, and you are obviously a very close friend of hers. She cut her hair for you, which means that to her, you are irreplaceable. You may feel worthless, and you may think you amount to nothing, but obviously, she thinks the opposite. So, if you will take advice from a crazy woodlander, I’m here to give it.”

“Ya know .. go ahead. It can’t git that much worse.” Xzaris found he truly didn’t care. Anything had to be better than this, and if it wasn’t, he could say he tried.

“Well, tell me what all has happened.”

He sighed. “Yer gonna think I’m crazy.”

Sayna snorted. “I doubt that.”

“Wull .. it started when we was escapin’ the city. That whole place, but especially the Monitors .. felt .. cold. Not a cold ya feel on yer fur, but one that makes .. the inside a ya feel like ice. Then .. when we was attacked, I was faced with two ratguards. It was insane .. I saw em. Not really, but I knew where they was .. an’ even creepier, I knew what they was gonna do next.”

“What?” Sayna had remained silent until this point.

Xzaris shrugged. “I could see their next move in me mind .. like seein’ the future. It’s sorta fuzzy now, it all happened fast .. but I swear that’s what was goin’ on.”

Sayna spoke with some bewilderment in her voice. “Future vision? That’s not something Ignasa grants very much .. many Prophets have had visions, but rarely a clear telling of the future, even the direct future. You say you only became a follower a week ago?”

“Hey, I can’t ‘xplain it.” Xzaris defended himself. “I donno what’s goin’ on.”

There was a tapping, as if Sayna was drumming her paws on the wood of her seat. “Strange. Very strange. Most Prophets follow Ignasa all their lives and never once experience that. I even knew several blind Prophets, and they never claimed to see anything .. when you say see, what exactly do you mean?”

Xzaris had tried to work that out himself, finally having given up. “Wull .. I couldn’t see em, I could .. see outlines. Fuzzy, faintly glowin’ outlines .. like .. oh, auras.”

“Auras?” She was staring at him, he was sure. “As in .. a beast’s .. soul?”

“I donno what it was. Maybe it was just Ignasa givin’ me mercy an’ lettin’ me live another day .. ya know, a one-time thing. Cause s’not like I kin see anythin’ like that now.”

“Maybe.” Sayna said it thoughtfully.

Xzaris suddenly remembered something. “Hey, that weren’t the only time like that, I could see the pearls …”

He broke off as he said it, wincing. “Don’t ya repeat that!”

“I know the pearls are here.” Sayna didn’t miss a beat. “Remember, I was on Romsca’s ship. She also captured Durral and I in the act of finding them. And no, I don’t intend to repeat that .. you should be more careful with that secret.”

“Ugg, I’m sucha idiot.” Xzaris muttered.

Sayna suddenly went back to the topic he’d meant to convey. “You saw them? How so?”

“They was glowin’ white .. I couldn’t see nothin’ round em, just them. An’ its not seein’ with yer eyes .. ya just .. picture it in yer mind, if’n that makes a bit a sense.”

Sayna was silent, and Xzaris asked, “Is that .. bad?”

“I’m thinking.” She replied. “And no, if Ignasa is granting you this ability, it’s not bad. Just .. unlike anything I’ve ever heard of. Even if you had a sensitivity to the spirit world, nobeast becomes a Prophet in a week, it takes years of dedication and faith to do what you’re describing. I’ll be honest and admit I don’t know quite what’s going on.”

The two were silent for a while, and Xzaris could hear the sounds of Romsca’s duel with Shui some ways away.

There was a thump and a scraping as Romsca landed on the ground, probably from leaping out of the dragon’s way, and she asked, “Now ya ain’t gonna spew that .. acid stuff a yers at me is ya?”

“Ha, az if. I’m not trying to turn you into puddle you know.” Shui responded as a scraping swish indicated she had lunged again. “Anyway, I only uze it when I have to.”

“I really don’t know.” Sayna spoke again, and Xzaris turned his attention back to her. “But I will do my best to find an answer for you. If you like, I will duel you though.”

Xzaris shrugged. “Ya probably only be frusterated. I can’t do nothin’, hardly.”

“Well,” Sayna stood. “You may be blind, but I’m a decrepit old relic, so perhaps it will work out.”

“That’s .. comfortin’.” Xzaris sighed. It was too, in a sick way.

He heard her footsteps as she walked to the weapon’s rack and picked something off of it. “No blades, not at first, just use your staff, and I’ll use this bamboo pole.”

Xzaris stood, wondering where she would attack from. However her voice rang out the next second, telling him she hadn’t moved yet. “You will be attacking me, and I will do my best not to move my feet. Now do your best to land a hit on me.”

He paused for a second, before swinging his staff at where he thought she was, but it connected with nothing.

“You were close, that was about three feet too far left.” She explained.

Xzaris growled in frustration, attacking again, with the same result. Sayna stumbled a little. “Well I had to dodge that time, try again.”

He did, and there was a clack as she blocked his cut. Sayna leapt backward, instructing, “Good, now find me.”

“Find ya?” Xzaris bit back his question and tried to focus on her scraping footsteps. She was being loud on purpose, it was easy to tell. He adjusted his grip on his staff, running forward as he made a guess at where Sayna stood.

He missed her entirely, and wasn’t very comforted at her assurances. “You were closer that time.”

Xzaris struck again, this time causing their weapons to collide with a loud crack. “Closer ain’t good ‘nough. If the first hit ain’t good, I ain’t gonna have time fer another.”

“True.” Sayna admitted. “But I want to try something. What have you been trusting throughout our duel?”

“Um ..” Xzaris had to think about it. “I donno, maybe me hearing an’ previous skills?”

“Right, that’s what I thought. This time, I want you to trust Ignasa. Just him, and nothing else .. pretend you’ve never raised steel in your life, just trust Ignasa to help you.” Sayna ordered.

Xzaris frowned, wondering how he was really supposed to do that. “Wull it ain’t like I’m in real danger .. an’ I don’t want ta bother him ..”

Sayna disagreed. “If Ignasa has given you a gift, he will want you to use it, to be able to use it. Just trust, forget everything else.”

Forget everything else. That was a tall order .. it wasn’t like his life was in mortal danger like it had been in the city, where he had no other choice. Wasn’t it best to leave deities .. especially patient, merciful deities like Ignasa alone as much as possible?

“You have something one your mind?” Sayna asked.

“Wull .. thing is, Ignasa was willin’ ta save me when I was dyin’, an’ I don’t wanna be a burden ta him. The last thing I want is ta make him angry.”

The mouse was silent for a moment, before stating, “I don’t know what image you have in your mind of Ignasa, but he will not be angry if you ask him to help you learn to use a gift he has given you. The opposite is true, in fact.”

Xzaris sighed. He was afraid she was going to say something to that effect, and the truth was, he didn’t know how to talk to a deity. He’d always done his best to just stay out of their way. But now it seemed none of the lords or ladies he had grown up worshipping were real anyway, and he was a follower of a lord he knew relatively little about.

It must be so different for woodlanders, having been taught all this from the time they could understand it. It was a foreign feeling, thinking of a deity as a beast you could talk to .. whenever you wanted to, but that was what this Sayna seemed to think.

Trust Ignasa.

Xzaris thought back on what he had done in the city .. and realized he’d done nothing at all. He’d been waiting for death to come, but in that second, it was like he could see again .. he had known what to do. And he didn’t doubt Ignasa had allowed him to do it. However, asking for such a thing again seemed foolhardy.

Sayna seemed to guess what he was thinking. “Ignasa gives us gifts, but it’s up to us to use them. You can either trust that he knows what he’s doing and do great things, or you can trust you know what you’re doing, and I cannot guarantee anything if you choose that path.”

“Maybe ya can’t, but I can.” Xzaris sighed. “I’ll be nothin’, I’ll truly have no purpose. Ya know, I don’t care no more, what I was told growin’ up. I can’t trust me eyes, I’ll learn ta trust a deity.”

He took a deep breath, holding his staff forward, and mentally begging for the thing he’d experienced before. Please .. I don’t know ya very well, an I dunno why ya’d let me do this .. but lemme see again. Yer the only one who kin do that.

Nothing happened for a second, and then a faint blue glow flickered in his mind’s eye, growing brighter almost instantly. It was standing in front of him, and it slowly took the shape of a creature smaller than most vermin, about the size of a rat.

He reached out, noting the soft glow outlining his arm. As he touched the aura in front of him, his paw connected with fur, and Sayna’s voice rang out, a little muffled. “Yea. That’s my face.”

Xzaris drew back, gasping, “I can see ya! Wull, not ya exactly, but .. a glowin’ outline a ya. An me! An ..”

He turned around, recalling Romsca and Shui were once dueling nearby. Two faint outlines appeared almost instantly, smaller than Sayna, which Xzaris concluded meant they were farther away. There was nothing visible surrounding them, no walls, no ground .. nothing but empty blackness that did little to give a clue about how close or far away the glowing figures were.

Interestingly, one had a dingy blue aura, not glowing brightly but still obvious. The other was nothing more than a thin, dim outline of no specific color .. as it was long and low to the ground, Xzaris had to assume it was Shui, and the dull blue one was Romsca.

He turned back to Sayna, who, in contrast, glowed a pure, light blue. From her voice, he could tell she was amazed. “What do you mean, you can see?”

“I mean I kin see .. somethin’ anyway. Outlines .. aura’s .. I donno.”

She responded, pointing out a fact he’d forgotten. “You can’t be seeing anything, not with your eyes. You’re still blindfolded. Whatever you are experiencing has nothing to do with sight, at least not in the physical sense of the word.”

She was right. Xzaris had forgotten about his blindfold, and his mind suddenly began to race, trying to discern what was happening .. to find some logic that could explain the phenomenon. As he did, Sayna’s outline flickered and vanished.

“What?” Xzaris wheeled around, to find the other silhouettes were gone as well, leaving him in a sea of nothing once again. He stumbled forward in somewhat of a panic, paw connecting with fur and Sayna mumbled sarcastically, her features moving beneath his claws.

“Again, that’s my face.”

Xzaris retreated clumsily, placing a paw on his forehead. “It’s all gone .. I can’t see nothin’ anymore, jist like after the city!”

He groaned .. more than anything, he wanted the ability again. Even if he had only felt it twice, it felt like a part of his being, like something he’d never known he wanted, but desperately needed.

Sayna spoke again, with certainty in her voice. “Ignasa has chosen to put his blessing upon you. I can’t tell you why, and I can’t tell you how it will work, but I can say this without a doubt. You have been called by the Healing Fire himself, you will do great things. But something .. is off.”

Her words were chilling .. all of them.

“I .. ain’t a hero or somethin’ ..” Xzaris couldn’t help his protest. “I ain’t the sorta beast ta be .. chosen fer somethin’ like .. whatever this is. I don’t even got a House, I’m jist a poor street kid who .. tried ta be somethin’ more.”

Sayna was silent for a moment. “What you were born as makes you unable to be given Ignasa’s blessing? I think not. I have seen street rats become princes and beggars become kings.”

She was certainly an enigma, that was for certain. Even still, Xzaris shook his head. “I ain’t worthy.”

“Are any of us?” Sayna laid a paw on his arm. “None of us are worthy. You probably think I’m a perfect woodlander, but I’ve done things I regret. I am no better than you.”

Xzaris silently tried to take this in, and she let her paw fall away. “Take a break. Think about the things I’ve said, talk to Ignasa. Come to me whenever you’re ready to continue, and I’ll do my best to help you.”

“Ya’d .. mentor me or somethin’? Like .. more’n once?” Xzaris was honestly surprised.

“Why not?” Sayna’s voice was nonchalant. “I might as well impart what wisdom I have to somebeast before I die.”

Xzaris didn’t comprehend what she meant very well. “Die?”

“Never mind. And yes, I’ll mentor you if you wish.” She stopped as a sudden scuffing rang out, one of lizard claws.

“Hey, there you are!” Xzaris recognized it as belonging to one of the dragon princes. “Father wantz to zpeak with you zity furbeaztz.”

While he’d never seen the lizard king, Xzaris had never been too keen about being in his presence. Sayna seemed to agree. “Did they do something wrong?”

“No, but we need to dizcuzz the feralz .. and the pirate in the Deathbringer’z cavez.”

><><

It took a while to get to Lord Isan’s throne room, as it took a while to get anywhere in the massive dragon palace. Romsca had never before seen the majesty of this room, as the occasions she had spoken with Isan had been elsewhere.

The dragon sat on his stunning throne .. that might also be considered a couch. It was long enough he could lay down upon it, with two arching lizards forming the back, one with wings and one without. Their stone tails created both legs and armrests, twisting artistically but impossibly.

Only Isan, Thunderstrike, and the bats occupied it, their forms somewhat dim in the soft red and orange light of the many firestones filling the arched roof like a small sea of stars. Sayna had opted to come along, and of course, Xzaris, Jiang, and Shui were there as well.

Isan slid off his stone throne-couch, nodding his approval that they were there. “Thiz iz a war counzil, I need you to tell me everything you know about Ublaz and hiz .. feralz. Rockz and Drip are getting the other zity furbeaztz, and zome of my counzilorz will come az well. After we are done, you and your friend will need to talk to Tia and Ting about your fox friend in their cave.”

“It was a fox?” Romsca asked, though she didn’t wish to hear the answer she knew she would.

“Yez. Lutran and hiz party returned, they told me it waz a red fox with a crew of mostly ratz and weazelz. The zhipz name iz Bloodkeel.”

Xzaris’s voice was tense. “Aye .. that’s him. Couldn’t be nobeast else.”

Romsca bit her lip. “Will ya kill him?”

“I can’t do much elze. I’m bound by our treaty with the batz to defend their land, and your friend choze the wrong cave to uze az baze. Bezidez, where would he go? You can’t expect me to show a pirate I know nothing about into the Vale of Dragonz.” Isan explained.

“Look .. ain’t there another cave that ain’t the bats’?” Romsca asked quickly. “A place he kin make a base that won’t cause no trouble?”

Isan thought for a minute. “Yez, I could zpare one of our zea cavez that’z not in uze. But az he trezzpazzed on Tia and Ting’z land, by law he iz theirz to judge. Juzt like you were ourz to judge when you came into our borderz. And if they want me to deztroy him .. I’m not going to ztart a war over a beazt I don’t know, ezpezially not in timez az fragile az theze. I have a duty to my people firzt.”

Romsca knew what he meant, but she wasn’t willing to give up. “Ain’t there anythin’ I kin do ta save him?”

“Well,” Isan sighed, giving that bats hanging from the rafters a glance. “You will have to bargain with them. Zomehow, you’ll need to convinze them to withhold their zentanze .. I don’t envy you.”

Romsca scowled. “Ain’t there anythin’ they want more’n .. anythin’?”

Isan shrugged. “You’ll find them mozt fruzterating. Honeztly, I pity you .. for a zity beazt, you zeem to have zome honor. If I felt I would not have need of their aid, I might refuze them, but it zeemz a mozt foolizh thing to do at thiz time.”

“I get it, yea .. I get it. I’ll figure somethin’ out. But mark me words, I’ll save him.” Romsca meant those words. As her oldest friend, the one who had been by her side since before she could properly remember, there was no chance she would back down. For now however, she appeased her anger with dark looks in the bats’ direction while plotting out what she would say.

Barranca, Arashi, and Shilo arrived soon after, along with Rocks and Drip. Val was naturally not part of it. Not much later, several large lizards joined them, each looking around the same age as Isan, or older. Faded color in their scales and a seasoned look in their eyes were the only indication aside from their size, which Romsca had learned usually told something about their age. Another horse joined them, and Isan brought the meeting to order.

The lizards simply laid on the floor, no table or chairs even mentioned .. but then, Romsca hadn’t really seen any chairs at all in the Vale of Dragons, and dragons weren’t constructed for sitting like a normal beast. It was a strange sort of war council, sitting on the carved floor of a throne room, next to lizards and horses .. and saying nothing of the bats hanging upside down from the ceiling. Romsca couldn’t help noticing that Barranca and Shilo look far more nervous than she felt.

“The zity furbeaztz claim their emperor haz over a thouzand feralz at hiz command.” Isan stated simply, the beasts who had heard it before looked grave, and the rest looked shocked .. except the bats, who just seemed interested.

“That cannot be.” One of the lizards argued. “He only came here in the lazt ten zeazonz, and the feralz population had decreazed to a little over three hundred .. it would take many four zeazonz to rebuild them, even in the bezt of conditionz.”

Isan nodded. “I thought that too. But they zeem quite determined about it, azk them yourzelf.”

The lizard turned to the vermin in general, asking, “Iz it zo? How can we believe you?”

Barranca looked irritated .. Romsca felt that too .. how could they doubt such commonplace knowledge? Shilo nodded frantically, almost, before Rocks spoke up. “I will teztify that when we were chazed out of zity, their were at leazt zeveral hundred feralz after uz. I zaw no thouzand, for which I am glad, but I will zay he haz a lot. And I can only guezz he haz more than that.”

The three older lizards looked more believing at this, and also Shui’s nod of confirmation. Still, for some reason, they could not seem to accept the fact there really were more than a thousand monitors.

Barranca seemed to lose control of his frustration. “How is it so hard to believe? He’s been breeding the things for nine seasons, of course he has that many!” Isan coughed. “Look .. feralz are biologically no different from uz, and one couple rarely haz more than three in a lifetime. Mozt only have one. Bezidez, dragonz are not true adults until they are at leazt twenty-five zeazonz, feralz or not.”

Drip broke in. “That’z why we have a hard time believing you. It juzt doezn’t add up .. even if he zomehow did .. breed .. a thouzand feralz, the oldezt onez zhould ztill be hatchlingz who’z zcales have yet to harden. It would take the rezt of hiz lifetime to raize a true army.”

There was a silence, and it was a dreadful silence. It made Romsca’s skin crawl .. the dragons undoubtedly knew how their species worked, but the two accounts didn’t add up. She knew Ublaz had many hundreds of Monitors, she had seen them with her own eyes, hadn’t she?

He she? True, she’d never seen over several hundred at once .. was the claim of a thousand Monitors nothing but a ploy?

Slowly, she voiced the doubt growing in her mind. “I ain’t ever thoughta this much .. but it’s true we rarely see more’n several hundred out at once. Maybe he was lyin’ all along .. wouldn’t be the first time.”

“It .. It’s not a l .. lie.” Shilo spoke softly, not really looking up. “I .. I might have never b .. been to the nest, but I know he has over n .. nine hundred. N .. nobeast ever said a .. thousand outright, b .. but that was the rumor.”

“How do ye know for sure? Are ye sure ye was not lied to as well?” Arashi asked.

Shilo shook his head. “N .. no .. the Emperor has d .. different regiments of M .. monitors. P .. palace guards, wall guards, bay guards, and city guards. Each g .. guard has two sets of them in it .. while one set is on duty, th .. the other is resting. I .. I know because it’s the ratguard’s job to o .. oversee them all.”

He shuddered visibly. “T .. to see they don’t r .. revert. And .. when one does ...”

The little ratguard looked down, wrapping his arms around himself and looking miserable.

“They can turn back to their natural state?” Sayna spoke for the first time since the meeting had begun, and Shilo nodded regretfully.

He paused, before adding, “N .. not very often, but .. o .. one in a hundred might. A .. and that one is .. enough.”

There was a moment of silence, before Isan asked, “What doez he feed them all?”

“I .. I don’t know.” Shilo admitted. “I .. I was in the lowest rank of the r .. ratguard, I never saw the nest, or where he housed th .. them.”

Thunderstrike spoke suddenly, stamping a hoof. “Isan, if this is true, we’re in grave danger. All of us.”

The lizard king nodded, a look Romsca could quite describe in his orange eyes. Barranca scowled, asking, “Why? Surely even a thousand Monitors are no match for you, you can dissolve them, I saw what happened in the city.”

Rocks frowned. “Well it’z not like that’z an eazy thing to do. Zhui zhouldn’t have, really.”

“It waz the faztezt way.” Shui looked challenged. “We had to get away before we all died.”

Isan sighed. “I know what you might be thinking. That we’re unztoppable. But truzt me in that our warriorz are far under a thouzand, and the feralz are not the only forze your emperor haz.”

He said it with such certainty, even Barranca looked convinced. The dragon lord nodded, adding, “And azide from the ratz, there iz hiz fleet, and the power he comandz.”

“The furbeasts stay in their city, except for the ones with boats. Why should we fear them, they never leave.”

Isan gave Ting an irritated glare, growling, “I have the feeling they won’t ztay there much longer.”

Tai looked disgusted with the whole situation. “Why didn’t you kill them all a long time ago?”

“If your mother taught you anything,” Isan began, grumbling, “And I not zure zhe did .. you would know that iz not our way. Az long az the furbeaztz left uz alone, we left them alone. They paid for the land their zity iz on, and we will honor that until they threaten uz perzonally. We knew thiz day would come, but I fear we zeriouzly undereztimated their power. From what the zity furbeazt’z zay, we are the onez with a disadvantage, and arguing about what we zhould have done won’t change anything.”

The two bats looked disgruntled, but didn’t argue anymore as even they seemed to understand it was unwise.

One of the older lizards spoke in agreement. “We can only move foreward. Do you have a plan of attack, zire?”

“Not entirely.” Isan’s voice betrayed nothing, but Romsca could only assume he was cringing inside at having to admit that. “I think our bezt option iz zwift attakz, to kill and run, juzt like we have done for many four zeazonz. But I will lizten to other ideaz.”

Thunderstrike tossed his head. “Isan, you have the furbeasts now, make them fight for you. They are shipbeasts, and the one thing we don’t have is an armada. With Zhanshi to accompany them, they would make a powerful force, even if it is a small one.”

“I’ve thought of that.” He looked at the vermin, raising an eye ridge. “I truzt you would?”

“Do we even have a choice?” Barranca grumbled in a resigned tone.

“I theory, I zuppoze you could refuze. But it wouldn’t gain you anything, you depend on our zaftey az much az we do.”

Arashi nodded. “I will sail for ye.”

Isan cocked his head. “You are not a captain.”

“I was a first mate for many seasons, I know how to sail.” Arashi stated firmly. “Ublaz has taken much from me, I’ll at least have a hand in his downfall.”

“Very well, we’ll find you a zhip. I underztand the ferret iz blind, but I hope you two captainz would zail againzt the emperor?” Isan looked pointedly at Barranca and Romsca as he said this.

Barranca sighed. “I might as well.”

Romsca nodded firmly.

Thunderstrike spoke quickly. “We’ll patrol the walls a safe distance out, to make sure none come by land.”

Isan nodded as one of his councilors added, “What about the gullz? We know they zided with the zity furbeaztz. Onze he underztandz what’z going on, the emperor will uze them to zpy on uz and plot where to attack uz.”

“We need an avian force, obviously.” Thunderstrike gave the bats a meaningful glare.

Tai huffed, but didn’t say anything. Isan added his own glare to the horse’s. “Tai, Ting, thiz iz your conzern az much az it iz ourz. If the zity furbeaztz take over the izland, where will you hunt?”

One of the other bats, a heather brown one, whispered something in Tai’s ear. He didn’t look pleased, but his sister seemed more interested. Ting cocked her head, asking, “We stop gulls for you, we drink blood of dead city furbeasts after battles?”

“I zuppoze, if that’z what it takez to have you uphold your treaty.” Isan sounded testy.

Ting looked pleased with herself. “We do it then.”

“I am Majesty Deathbringer too!” Tai sounded quite put out, and Romsca assumed it was thanks to the fact he hadn’t been able to manipulate the situation and had his pride wounded.

Ting just rolled her eyes in an uncaring manner, asking, “When you get pirates and fire thing out of caves?”

Isan looked over at Romsca and Xzaris expectantly, and Romsca knew it was now or never. “What would it take fer ya ta spare him? If we could make him leave an’ never come back, what would ya take in trade fer his life an’ the lives a his crew?”

Ting snorted. “Spare pirates? Why, what could you give us worth their blood? Need blood to live, and they are trespassers, nothing you have is worth enough.”

“How do ya know?” Romsca countered, eyes snapping. “I’ma pirate, I can git me paws on gold.” Tai growled, and if it weren’t for the circumstances, Romsca might have laughed at his high-pitched, unimposing growl. “You not have enough gold to please Majesty Deathbringers, we rich, have plenty sparkly treasure!”

Ting flitted above him, planting a claw on his head and shoving him down towards the floor. “You shut big mouth!”

She looked interested. “He stupid, Majesty Deathbringers never have enough treasure, what gold do you have?”

Romsca istinctivley dug in her satchel, only to find it was nearly empty. She looked at Xzaris, muttering, “Did ya raid anythin’ while ya was out?”

He nodded, answering softly. “Wull yea, but it’s all on me ship, I didn’t think I’d need none a it .. thinking I was gonna die an’ all.”

Arashi must have overheard, for she spoke suddenly. “Forgive me, but I took it .. I didn’t know what would happen and I had no desire for the emperor to get his filthy paws on it.”

She unslung a satchel from around her shoulders and dropped it into Xzaris’s paws. “It’s yours, of course.”

Ting cocked her head. “Well?”

Xzaris undid the satchel’s flap a bit clumsily, holding it out in the general direction of Ting, though he was a bit off and ended up almost stuffing it in Romsca’s face. However the bat leader barely noticed, as she was fixated on the contents.

“Ooooh pretty gold ..”

Tai flitted up beside her, griping, “We not need that, we have much more gold .. it not all that pretty.”

Again, Ting planted a claw on his head, shoving him earthwards in the beginnings of a faceplant. “You shut mouth, I want pretty gold! It is pretty, and I take it!”

Tai surged upwards, squeaking, “Pirates worth more! You not trade whole boat of pirates for that little gold!”

Ting frowned, scowling, “You stupid, I like gold ..”

She paused. “But you right .. need more gold to spare all pirates. Give us three other sacks of gold like this, and we give pirates until dawn to leave caves.”

Romsca really wanted to grab Tai by the neck and violently strangle him. The bat groaned. “No Ting, we not trade! Blood is worth more!”

Ting raised a claw, and Tai flitted away so she could not shove him in the direction of the ground again. She snarled angrily, squeaking, “We will trade for three more treasures like this, I will make you regret saying no!”

Tai groused .. his ears drooped and he made a distinctly disgusted face, but he didn’t counter as such, just muttered, “You not only Majesty Deathbringer ..”

Xzaris shook his head. “Rom, I don’t got anymore!”

Romsca growled under her breath, trying to come up with a solution. “How long do I have ta git three times that much gold?”

“You not have?” Ting scowled.

“Not with me, but I’ll get it.” Romsca glared fiercely at the bat. “Mark me words, I’ll get it one way or another, now how long?”

Tai looked triumphant. “See, they not have! We not trade .. mppphh!”

Ting shoved her claws in his face. “We give them til tomorrow night to pay and have pirates leave caves. If they not have gold, we take blood.”

She spun around in midair to face Romsca. “Majesty Deathbringer has spoken. You save pirates? Bring treasure before moonset tomorrow.”

There was no better option .. Romsca was almost certain more negation would only anger the flighty bat leader. She placed her paws together, bowing subtly. “I’ll see ta it.”

Ting looked pleased and pointedly ignored her brother’s angry glare as she swooped up to the ceiling, latching onto a rafter. Tai glowered at Romsca, snarling squeakily, “Fall in big pit, stupid furbeast! Make big trouble for Majesty Deathbringer, fly down off cliff!”

He flitted upwards, finding a rafter a good distance from his sister’s perch.

Isan spoke again after a few moments. “Well, az we were. Thunderztrike, zet up a perimeter guard. Xin, zee fifty lizardz go with the Windancerz.”

One of the older lizards nodded, and he quickly followed the herd stallion from the room. Isan turned to Romsca, asking, “Do you have enough gold anywhere?”

The ferret let her shoulders slump a little. “No. But I’ll get some, even if’n I have ta raid the bay.”

“Perhapz there’z a better way.” Izan looked thoughtful. “You two, it’z your friend?”

Xzaris nodded. “He’s been our best friend fer seasons.”

Isan nodded in turn. “Meeting dizmizzed. Follow me. Zhui? Jian?”

The brother and sister fell in step with their father and the two vermin. Shui looked questioning. “What are you doing father?”

“I’ll offer them a trade for zome treazure. Zeen through mature eyez, we have plenty to zpare.” The dragonlord looked at Jian as he said this, adding, “But, I’ll expect zomething in turn.”

Jian sighed, protesting, “But it’z zo zhiny! And it’z going to Tai and Ting ..”

Shui rolled her eyes. “It’z their friend, Jian. Bezidez, we’ll find more.”

“More? How much do ya even have? Ya don’t have trade with other nations .. do ya?” Romsca asked, rather baffled.

Jian shook his head. “We don’t need it .. you throw out zo much gold we have lotz.”

“Wait ..” Romsca was entirely confused. “What? We don’t throw out gold .. what’cha think we is, crazy or somethin’?”

Shui and Jian exchanged a glance, and Romsca sighed. “Ya don’t gotta answer that.”

Xzaris kept up reasonably well with the use of his walking staff, and he asked, “Where do we throw treasure out? Cause I’m purty sure there’s some mistake.”

Isan stopped in front of a set of heavy wooden doors braced with thick metal, set in the cliffside itself. He pulled a key from the many golden bands around his neck, inserting it into the lock and turning it. Shui and Jian were looking a little uncertain as Isan turned around, looking grave. “What I am doing meanz I truzt you, Romzca of dragonz. Do not betray me, or you will pay with your life, do you underztand?”

Romsca lifted her chin a little. “Yes.”

Isan nodded, shouldering the door open. “Come.”

Jian and Shui stood still as Romsca and Xzaris walked through the monumental door, following once they were inside.

It was dark, and there was a scuffling sound and a sudden burst of light as Shui lit a lantern, holding it in her mouth.

A long cavern stretched out before them, ceiling towering far above. Glittering crystals hung from thick wooden beams spanning the long but relatively narrow cave. The prism-like stones caught the lanternlight and magnified it, creating a soft glow that revealed the sets of tall, wooden double doors lining the passageway.

Romsca stared up at the sparkling crystals hanging from the ceiling in wonder as Isan opened another set of doors. “In here.”

Shui trotted into the room, the light from her lantern catching the gleam of gold. More crystals hung from rafters across this cave as well, and that, combined with the monumental amount of treasure lying in heaps all across the floor, lit the cavern so well it might as well have been broad daylight.

Romsca’s jaw dropped as she struggled to take it in, and her voice was awe-struck. “Hellgates ...”

She looked at Isan, hoping for some explanation .. any explanation. “How ..?”

“Az Zhui zaid. Thiz iz the wealth of many agez .. wealth you threw away.” Isan looked a little amused at Romsca’s complete and utter shock.

“Uh .. we ain’t never thrown this much away .. I can’t thinka a time in history we threw away a single shilling, let alone … this.”

She slowly walked forward as Xzaris stayed close to Jain, unable to see the glory before him. Romsca shook her head, asking, “Where’d ya find this .. outside the walls or somethin’?”

“In the zea of course!” Jian answered.

Suddenly Romsca froze, a nasty chill running down her spine. “The .. sea? Do ya mean .. ya couldn’t mean .. this all came from ..”

She didn’t like to say it. As much as she understood the old beliefs were wrong, it still felt too horrible, what the dragons had done.

All of a sudden, Xzaris seemed to put the fragmented thoughts together, and he blurted, “Wait .. yer grave robbers?”

There was a moment of silence, before Jian spoke. “Ooohhh ... wait. That waz for deadbeaztz?”

Shui frowned. “What do the deadbeazt’z need with it?”

Romsca stared at her in disbelief. “Don’t ya honor yer dead by buryin’ them with treasure?”

“No.” The dragon looked baffled. “Why would we do that? The dead do not need mortal treazure, az they will find better treazurez az immortalz in the afterlife. They cannot take mortal gold with them, which iz why it iz given to their children to remember them by.”

Romsca gaped at Shui for a moment, before snapping her mouth shut. She didn’t know what to say .. what could she even say? Honestly, in light of all she knew now, the dragon’s philosophy seemed closer to the truth than what she’d been taught.

Jian cocked his head. “Why do you give your dead treazure?”

“Well .. ta pay Atlas, the Lady of the sea. She takes souls to the court of Lord Rayith. .. without her, none can pass.” Romsca explained.

Xzaris nodded. “Which is why if ya love a beast, ya’d do anythin’ ta see they was buried at sea and had at least a liddle gold ta pay Atlas.”

Isan looked curious. “Do you believe that?”

“No.” Romsca looked down.

Xzaris finished her thought. “Not anymore, anyways.”

“Never the less ..” Romsca stared about the room, half in amazement, and half in something akin to fear. “Ta see all this here is .. joltin’, ta say the least.”

The three dragons remained silent, allowing her to become accustomed to the idea. Romsca walked slowly forward, taking it all in .. for this wasn’t just a roomful of treasure, it was a roomful of history. Every coin, bracelet, and earring was here .. from beautifully crafted weapons, to entire suits of armor, to crowns and elaborate pieces of jewelry, to mounds of coinage.

Strangely, Romsca noticed something a little odd. “This is all gold. Ya don’t take the silver?”

“Oh we take everything.” Jian assured. “Thiz iz juzt the room we keep gold in. We have another for zilver, another for gemz, another for normal armor and weaponz .. and zome roomz for random bitz we find, like glazz and hardware from zunken zhipz.”

Xzaris sounded baffled. “I get the treasure an’ armor an’ weapons .. but why would ya want junk off wrecks?”

“It’z not junk!” Jian sounded rather offended. “It’z zhiny. And we like zhiny anything.”

Romsca sighed. “Somehow it don’t surprise me.”

Isan rolled his eyes. “Almozt any dragon you meet iz a hoarder. But zome are more addicted to it than otherz .. Jian hoards the randomezt of thingz zometimez.”

“He haz a problem.” Shui laughed teasingly.

“Hey, you hoard ztuff too!” Her brother protested, and Shui shrugged.

“Yez, but I hoard zparkly jewelry … you go zo far az to hoard driftwood. What’z with that, it’z not even zhiny!”

Jian looked grumpy. “It’z .. there. Zo I collect it.”

Isan shook his head, looking toward Romsca. “Anyway, az we were. I am willing to give you three zackfulz of thiz on loan, with the understanding you will find a way to pay me back. And I will let you warn you friend, though I hope you underztand you cannot tell him of uz, or the batz.”

Romsca blinked. “Uh .. how’m I supposed ta do that? He’s gonna ask.”

“I don’t care.” Isan’s voice was firm. “I’ve dezided to truzt you, ztrange beazt that you are, and I believe you have our bezt intereztz in mind, for one reazon or another. You went into the zity, and you gave up the pearlz. So in return I’ll lend you my gold and let you warn your friend. But I do not in any way truzt him. In other wordz, I don’t care what he azkez, find zomething elze to tell him, becauze nobeazt I do not truzt iz allowed to know what we are or where we are.”

He narrowed his eyes a little. “Telling a pirate I have not had a chanze to tezt and judge for myself would be treazon. I have no idea what hiz motivez are.”

Romsca sighed, nodding. “I get it .. I’ll come up with somethin’. An’ it’s probably best he don’t know ‘bout ya right away.”

“If nothing elze, zay the beaztz who you have joined forzez with ordered you not to give out information.” Shui suggested.

Xzaris shook his head, snorting sarcastically. “This is gonna be fun. Rasconza’s not the kinda beast ta take no fer an answer.”

Isan shrugged. “Zee that he doez. Look at thiz az a zort of final tezt. In my mind, after what you’ve already done, if I let you go back to your own kind and you ztay true to uz, you are our alliez. It will be enough for me, and you two will earn my favor.”

“Right.” Romsca nodded, before pausing and asking, “With all due respect an’ everythin’, weren’t us rescuin’ the woodlanders enough?”

“It zertainly put you in a better light.” Isan assured. “And perhapz I should have given you my truzt then. But while I guezz you zee the woodland furbeaztz az different from you, I don’t. I wanted to observe you a while longer .. and zome of your group I ztill do. I am only being cautiouz, after all, your people and mine did not part on good termz. There were reazonz we clozed the gatez.”

Romsca looked at him a moment, wondering if he would say more, but as he didn’t, she just nodded. “I can take that.”

“You underztand the role of a leader. I like that about you.” Isan smiled slightly. “Now chooze the gold you need. Even if the batz are willing to give you until next moonzet, it’z bezt not to rely on their word. You zhould warn your friend tonight.”

><><

Romsca leaned over Summer’s neck, allowing her body to flow with his gait. She was glad Isan had given her horse back, as well as her weapons .. she was tired of riding mounts that threatened to kill her. Drip bounded alongside the palomino, and several other lizards ran nearby. Xzaris rode a pinto horse who had either volunteered or been ordered to carry him, which one was the case was debatable.

Romsca couldn’t really blame Isan for sending a few of his lizards to keep an eye on them, and she was glad of their guidance, as she did not know the way to Whispering Caverns by land.

The ride took a good hour, as they kept the pace quick but reasonable. Romsca pulled back on Summer’s reins, bringing his lope to a trot, and finally a walk as the trees thinned, giving way to tall grass.

The sea stretched out before them, though tall cliffs made up the shoreline, not beaches. The slowly setting moon glimmered faintly on the water, half shrouded by eerie mist.

Summer came to a halt with the jingle of tack, and Romsca looked over at Drip. “Are we here?”

“Yez.” The green lizard confirmed, though he kept looking out to sea. “Father zayz we muzt come with you. Remember, do not breath a word of uz to your friend. Not uz, not the horzez, and not the batz. Either he haz enough faith in you to believe, or he doezn’t. If he truly iz your friend, he will not need to know every detail to believe you.”

He looked over at her. “We will alzo zee you are not harmed.”

Xzaris slipped off his mount, stating, “Rasconza ain’t gonna hurt us.”

“We’re juzt taking care. And letting you know that you are not alone if zomething zhould go wrong.”

Romsca took a deep breath. “Yea. Thanks Drip.”

He dipped his head in reply, and Romsca held her paw out to Xzaris, who grabbed it with a little difficulty. She helped him onto Summer’s back, behind her.

Drip nodded. “Are we ready?”

There were nods all around, and the Neishi started forward, heading along the cliffs. Only the horse Xzaris had ridden there did not follow.

Drip chose a pathway Romsca would never have noticed .. hidden by brush, it truly looked like the edge of a cliff. Her breath caught in her throat for one second as he vanished over the edge, and then curiosity drove her to follow him.

Barely wide enough for a horse to walk down, sandwiched between boulders, and shrouded in mist, it wasn’t ideal. Romsca winced as her legs scraped against rock, and Summer sensed her tenseness and snorted worriedly.

She patted his neck quickly, urging him farther along the narrow path. It took a little, but at last they reached the sea, where they stood in the looming mouth of a massive cavern. Romsca could see faint firelight inside, that barely made out the outline of a ship .. an all too familiar ship.

Drip nodded. “Go. But ztay where we can zee you.”

“Aye.” Romsca gave him a glance, before tapping her heels against Summer’s sides, and the horse walked toward the yawning entrance, hooves making soft crunches in the silt.

The sea had worn a deep trench in the cave’s floor, but a little remained, forming a ledge several yards wide. The soft moonlight faded into blackness, and Romsca’s eyes took a moment to adjust. Before they could, a sharp voice rang out.

“Halt! Who goes there?”

The shadowy form of a weasel-sized beast was visible in the gloom, and Romsca sighed, readying herself for a second, before she swung down from Summer’s saddle, boots thumping on rock. She walked forward, stopping only a few feet in front of the guard, crossing her arms and sneering in a commanding voice, “Capt’n Romsca a the Dragons, an’ if ya weren’t an incompetent fool ta let yer torch go out, ya’d know that. If ya was on me crew I’d have ya flogged .. tell Rasconza a the Gulls I wish ta speak with him.”

There was a sudden scuffling, and a torch flared to life seconds later. Romsca squinted against the sudden glare, giving the guard one just as powerful. “I didn’t ask ya ta blind me, I told ya ta tell Capt’n Rasconza I’m waitin’ fer him. Now.”

The weasel paused for a moment, before bolting off.

Xzaris patted Summer’s mane, remarking, “Ya play pirate well.”

“I learned from the best.” Romsca smirked in reply.

He suddenly grew serious, asking, “Rom, how da ya think Rasconza’s gonna take this? He ain’t the kinda beast ta trust nobody .. ya think he’ll leave?”

Romsca’s eyes darkened. “He better. Cause I can’t bare ta see him die. I’ve lost enough already, I ain’t failin’ again, Ignasa be me witness.”

A few second of silence passed, before the glow of torchlight separated itself from the aura around the ‘Bloodkeel’, and running footsteps began echoing off the cave walls. Romsca felt her breath catch in her throat as she caught sight of the familiar red fox, visible in the light of the torch held by the guard who ran beside him.

As soon as he was close enough to discern who the two were, Rasconza slid to a stop, staring at them for a moment. Then he bolted forward, and Romsca felt herself leap forward as well, unable to hold back.

Fox and ferret met in a flying hug, knocking the wind out of each other as they held one another in a vise-like grip, unable to say a word.

“Rasconza ..” Romsca began breathlessly, but he cut her off.

“You’re alive! Rom, you’re alive! I thought .. I’d never see you again!”

Romsca released her hug, taking a step back and grinning. “Ya think I didn’t think the same?”

Xzaris dismounted with a crunch of silt, and Rasconza clapped a paw on his shoulder, before embracing him quickly and a little roughly. “You too matey .. how is this even possible?” He suddenly seemed to get a good look at Xzaris’s face, and frowned instantly. “What happened? What’s with the sash and scars .. you .. can see right?”

Xzaris shook his head regretfully. “Not’a bit. I got home first an’ Ublaz blinded me as punishment fer not getting’ his pearls. I was dyin’ in the dungeons when Rom found me an’ saved me.”

Rasconza looked questioningly at Romsca like he didn’t want to believe it, before his eyes suddenly widened. “Wait .. where’s Val?!”

His voice was cracked with worry, and Xzaris quickly assured him. “She ain’t dead, if that’s what yer thinkin’. I kept her safe til Ublaz got me, an’ after that she was wounded. It ain’t fatal an’ it ain’t the worst that could’a happened by far, she’s jist laid up fer a while.”

Romsca nodded, and Rasconza relaxed a little. “Good. Wait .. where is she? And how did you two escape from Ublaz? Are your ships around here? You couldn’t have possibly come by land.”

Romsca sighed deeply. “Rasconza, it’s a long story. I killed all the Monitors on me ship .. me an’ me crew. But all but one a them was killed, only me an’ two prisoners survived .. it was a bloodbath. A few crew members fled inna lifeboat, which wrecked on Sampetra’s shores, killin’ them. Ublaz thought I’d gone down at sea by the time I got ta the island .. a lucky break fer me. I went ta me Uncle, who told me bout Xzaris, an’ I rescued him. We found Val an’ fled the city .. there weren’t else ta do. But we ran inta .. obstacles an’ difficulties along the way.”

Rasconza looked from one to the other, finally stating, “Go on.”

“We can’t.” Xzaris said, some regret in his voice.

“You can’t? Of course you can, whatever’s out there, we’ll stand against it together!” Rasconza protested.

There was a moment of silence, a nasty, uncomfortable silence, before Romsca spoke. “Not quite in the way yer thinkin’. Things are complicated, but we came here ta warn ya of somethin’.”

She gave the confused guard a pointed look. “In private.”

Rasconza raised an eyebrow, but nodded to the guard. “Leave us.”

He nodded, quickly hurrying away, though the look on his face let on how very curious he was. Xzaris spoke after a moment. “As of now, we ain’t actin’ on our own behalf, ya gotta unnerstand that.”

“How do you mean? The only beast you could be working for is Ublaz ..”

“No!” Romsca interrupted sharply. “No, we ain’t. And we ain’t at liberty ta tell ya alla what’s goin’ on. But we didn’t come here just ta chat, Rasconza, yer in danger here.”

“What?” The fox sounded bewildered. “This is a defensible cave .. does Ublaz know of it?”

Xzaris shrugged. “I wouldn’t put it past him. But no, that ain’t yer biggest threat as a now.” Romsca pulled a piece of parchment out of her satchel, clenching her paw around it. “Let’s jist say the ghosts know yer here, an’ if ya don’t git out .. they’re gonna kill ya.”

Rasconza took a slow step back. “What?”

“This is their cave, an’ they don’t take kindly ta ya bein’ here.” Romsca explained. “If it weren’t fer me an’ Xzaris, ya’d already be dead.”

“What about Val?” Rasconza asked after a moment.

Romsca shook her head. “We haven’t told her. She needs ta rest an’ heel, not worry herself sick or worse, try somethin’ crazy that’ll hurt her worse.”

She shrugged. “Sorry.”

“No, you’re right.” Rasconza nodded. “If knowing I’m alive would put her in jeopardy, I don’t want her to know.”

He rubbed his head for a moment, sighing, “But let me get this straight. Somehow you know that the ‘ghosts’, whatever they are, are going to attack me ..”

“Not attack ya, annihilate ya matey.” Xzaris corrected. “There’s no victory ta be had here. Trust us.”

Romsca nodded. “An’ we don’t want that fer ya, so please leave.”

She placed the parchment in his paw. “This is a map showin’ ya a good cave ta use. It’s secluded an’ from what I know it ain’t on any a our maps, so Ublaz won’t know a it at all.”

Rasconza looked at it a moment, before asking, “So let me get this straight. You’re working with the ghosts, I’ve trespassed on their land, and if I don’t relocate to this new cave I will be killed?”

“Yes. Please Rasconza!” Romsca begged. “I don’t wanna lose ya too, not when I could save ya. Please leave here.”

“You’re really serious.” Rasconza looked over at Xzaris, who seemed to know it and nodded.

He looked down at the map in his paw, asking, “Well, what will I tell my crew?”

Romsca rolled her eyes. “I donna, come up with somethin’! Say Ublaz is onta ya, something’ .. just get out.”

Rasconza sighed, slipping the parchment into his belt. “What about you? What will you do?”

Xzaris turned his head in Romsca’s general direction, saying nothing as if waiting for her answer. She didn’t quite meet Rasconza’s gaze. “We’ll go back. We’ve gotta. Fer multiple reasons, an’ I think ya kin guess some a it.”

There was an eerie silence, before Rasconza sighed. “Yea.” He looked from Romsca to Xzaris, asking, “Will I see you again?”

Xzaris shook his head. “Who knows mate? Sure hope so.”

“There might be a way ta get us all workin’ tagether again.” Romsca blurted. “But it’s gonna take time. Til then .. we’ll just have ta do our best solo. An’ .. we gotta go. I don’t wanna risk tellin’ ya more’n I should.”

Rasconza cast a disgruntled glance at the floor, as if he very much disliked what he had to accept. “Fine. And protect Val, I don’t want anything to happen to her, see?”

Romsca nodded firmly as her friend walked forward, hugging the two of them shortly. “And .. protect yourselves. You’re the closest thing I’ve got to family.”

Xzaris smiled. “We’ll find some way. Nothin’s stopped us before, after all.”

“Yer me brother Rasconza, always will be.” Romsca clapped the fox on his shoulder. “This is gonna work out. Leave tonight ta be safe, ok?”

“I’ll do my best.” He agreed with a sigh as Xzaris walked to Summer and mounted somewhat clumsily. Romsca swung into the saddle in front of him, and the three stared at each other for a moment, unsure of what to say.

Finally, Romsca lifted her chin, doing her best to smile in the dim light. “Fair winds Razconza.”

He dipped his head. “To you as well, Romsca, Xzaris.”

Another moment passed, before Romsca nodded, turning Summer around and suddenly clapping her heals against his sides. The old horse snorted his annoyance, but Romsca wasn’t having it and urged him forward again. Summer finally broke into a trot, and Romsca pushed him into a canter, leaning over his mane. She had to get out of there.

It felt like she was betraying Rasconza by leaving him, even if it was pretty much the other way around. Summer trotted up the inclined path toward the top of the cliffs, he’d dropped out of his canter after a few moments, and Romsca didn’t bother ordering him again.

For a few minutes, they were completely alone in the mist, and Xzaris asked softly, “Did ya really mean that? That’s everythin’d be alright? Cause .. that don’t sound quite like ya. Not meanin’ offense a course.”

“No. Yer right, I ain’t the hopeful type. But what am I supposed ta say?” Romsca looked down at Summer’s flaxen mane as the horse slowed to a walk. “This ain’t gonna be easy, an’ we’ve lost beasts before. But we’ve survived this far an’ .. I guess I’m holdin’ onta that hope, that we’ll make it out a this mess somehow. Ignasa knows we’ve been in messes before an’ lived.”

Xzaris said nothing, just laid a paw on her shoulder, and Romsca sighed, clapping her heels against Summer’s sides as he’d downright stopped and was nibbling on grass. He snorted and began walking again, slowly cresting the ridge of the cliff, where the mist was thinner. Drip was waiting for them, and Romsca took a deep breath, looking into his yellow eyes. “Well? Did we fail or what?”

Drip cocked his head, looking thoughtful for a moment. Then he grinned. “No, I’d zay you pazzed. You zhould talk to father about become dragonz like Lutran, cauze you zeem to have the ztrength we admire. Unlezz you openly betray uz, you have no need to fear uz anymore.”



Chapter 32 The Times are Changing

TotO &#039;For Immortality&#039;

“Ya .. wanna do what?” Romsca asked, for she hadn’t really been listening.

Val grinned, repeating, “Dye yer hair! Ya’ve got somethin’ on yer mind, don’t ya?”

“No.” Romsca lied. “Wait, what? Why would ya wanna dye me hair?”

“Oh come on, when did I not wanna dye hair?” Val sounded incredulous. “But seriously, gray don’t look right on ya. Makes ya look old or something’.”

Romsca clapped her paw to the thick streak of silver running through her black hair, and scowled. “No it don’t .. well not really anyway.”

Val snickered, triumphant. “So ya don’t like it! Lemme dye it, please, please! I’m soooo bored in here!”

Romsca sighed, hanging her head as Val begged. The vixen had been confined to her hammock in the healing chambers for what Romsca hoped she could gauge as three days or so, what with day and night being turned head over heels, it was hard to tell sometimes. Either way, Val was becoming .. rather insufferable, as her energy kept building, with no way to be properly expelled.

It was dusk again, Romsca had caught a few hours of sleep during the day, and to be completely honest, sleeping when the sun was up was far more restful than sleeping at night. She still hadn’t gotten word back on Rasconza, and she knew her nerves would be on edge until she knew the final outcome. Still she had no intention of telling Val .. not for a while anyway.

“Heeeey! Heey Rom, wake up!”

Romsca looked up to see Val waving a paw inches from her face. “So, can I dye it? Please .. I’m beggin’ ya here!”

“Yea, I can tell.” Romsca sounded droll, but unenthusiastic. Honestly, she’d have liked to avoided Val until the Rasconza mess was sorted out, but after Arashi, Barranca, and Shui had all been the bringers of impatient requests for a visit, she’d given in.

Val narrowed her eyes. “What’s up? Ya seem sorta off.”

Romsca was rather alarmed, but she shoved it down. “How so?”

“The Rom I know’d be all like ‘What? No way is ya dyein’ me hair, it’s bad ‘nough the way it is, no way is ya sissifyin’ me like that!’”

Val was good at impressions.

Romsca sighed. “I’d say I don’t sound like that but I gotta give credit where credit is due. An’ I guess I don’t like me hair bein’ gray much either.”

“Then you’ll lemme dye it??” Val sounded .. beyond excited. “Fine, I guess. Just don’t ya dare dye it pink, or somethin’ stupid like that.” Romsca gave in reluctantly. “Cause if ya do, I’ll find’a way ta pay ya back somethin’ awful, see? A warrior’s gotta keep her dignity, got it?”

Val snorted. “Well I wouldn’t dye me own hair pink anyway. No, I’ll do it so ya like it, promise!”

“Yea, well, make sure it’s ..” She paused as Grath walked past the two, gaze somewhat averted. The otter looked much better, though her eyes had darkish rings under them. She looked sane again, but shy too, and she didn’t really seem to want to talk to Romsca. But then, that wasn’t surprising.

Romsca looked back at Val as the vixen grabbed her braid and began examining it. “Ooooh it’s so .. heavy an’ thick! I ain’t never seen hair like this in me life!”

“I agree on all points.” Romsca grumbled, thinking unsavory thoughts.

Val hugged the braid, rubbing her face against it. “So purty! I want hair like this so bad now!”

Romsca rolled her eyes. “No ya don’t.”

“I’ma comb it.” Val informed her, reaching over to her satchel, hanging on a nearby pillar.

“Whatever.” Romsca looked at the floor. “Just make sure ya braid it tightly again after yer done messin’ with it, I can’t have it flowin’ everywhere. An’ by Ignasa don’t ya dare cut it!”

Romsca blurted the last bit suddenly, recalling she hadn’t completely filled Val in on the properties of the hair. “If’n ya cut it you’ll kill me. Like I was after savin’ Xzaris inna city.”

“Oh! Right .. nah, I kinda knew this hair was special anyway. It’s safe with me.” Val grinned, undoing the braid and beginning to run her comb through Romsca’s long ebony locks.

The ferret leaned against the pillar she was sitting beside, a position that still gave Val access to her hair. She found she was staring at Grath, who had her back turned, as she was sitting beside the wounded otter, Inbar.

Romsca sighed softly. For some reason, she greatly desired to befriend the golden-haired otter. She’d never really cared to befriend anybeast, at least, not after her father had died. But Grath .. at least the memory of Grath, reminded Romsca of better times .. hope .. the feeling of .. innocence almost.

The otter in question slowly looked around, and Romsca quickly averted her gaze. She felt Grath’s stare burning into her pelt .. or at least she thought she did. “I’m sorry ya know. I’m sorry about him.”

“Huh?” Grath’s voice was .. a bit strange, sort of breathy almost.

“About yer friend. I wasn’t fast enough.”

Val snorted. “Oh come’n, we was a fast as we could be ..”

Romsca cut her off. “I ain’t talkin’ bout ya, I’m talkin’ ‘bout me. I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t good enough. Never have been.”

Grath shook her head after a moment. “You saved him .. them all. That’s what counts.”

Her voice wasn’t friendly, just flat .. flat and tired. Emotionless. Broken.

There was a silence, before Grath met Romsca’s gaze. “You were so young .. I know in my mind I can’t hold it against you, but .. but ..”

She broke off, and Romsca looked confused. “What?”

“I .. what happened to Coral and Marine.”

Romsca stiffened, her breath catching a little. “How do you .. I mean .. did Lutran .. tell you how it happened?”

She could just imagine how he’d told it. However Grath’s answer shocked her beyond anything she’d remotely expected.

“No .. Ublaz made me watch. The brown ferret .. the one who … died .. was that .. your father?”

Romsca stared at her a moment, before nodding slowly. “His name was Conva. He was .. my hero. A purty twisted hero, but I like ta think .. that maybe he gotta be a real one somehow .. through that.”

Grath looked away. “I think I know why Lutran hates you so. He wants to blame you more than anything .. you, your father .. but he knows, deep down, that ..”

She gulped, her voice breaking for a moment. “That he can’t.”

Romsca said nothing, just blinked in surprise as Grath continued. “And I think that’s the hardest part of it all, really. You had to be so .. sorry. So bitterly sorry this all happened. And more than that, you had to be so desperate to .. right the wrongs somehow.”

“Right the wrongs.” Romsca muttered. “Yea. I wish. Well, what would ya have me do, be some sorta cliché bad guy?”

Grath bit her lip, before bursting out, “Yes! I .. I can’t hate someone as apologetic as you! And .. I want to hate you more than anything but … I can’t find it in my heart to say it’s all your fault .. because it’s not.”

Romsca blinked, before snorting in some sort of twisted amusement. “Huh, I’da never thought woodlanders’d want me ta just be evil .. guess I see why though. As long as alla us are filthy murders, it’s a whole lot easier ta find somebeast ta blame fer the world’s problems, ain’t it? Yea, I can see that.”

Grath sniffed, and Romsca smiled bitterly, but in a resigned manner. “I’ve been a villain most’a me life. If ya wanna hate me, go ahead.”

“And that’s exactly why I can’t!” Grath cried out sharply, pinning her ears. “You don’t defend yourself .. you aren’t prideful .. you don’t think you’re in the right .. you’re willing to take my hatred because of something your father and people did .. you didn’t even do it! You’re .. more selfless than I am!”

She almost spit the last words out, and Romsca sat, frozen in total shock. Grath shoved herself to her feet, closing her eyes and running away, blinking against tears.

Total silence reigned over the healing chambers, and Romsca didn’t move. She couldn’t. Val continued to brush her hair, though she too, said absolutely nothing.

“No .. she can’t be serious ..” Romsca slumped against the pillar, looking at her paws. “She’s a woodlander!”

“Well ..” Val tried to keep her voice completely cheerful. “I guess that means ya kin trust her judgment.”

“That’s wrong .. I ain’t selfless .. I’m .. me!”

Val shrugged. “Yea but .. ya really .. I mean yer .. yer not the Romsca that left Sampetra a couple seasons back. Yer .. totally different. Trust me, the change is .. kinda creepy sometimes. Sometimes I wonder if’n it’s really me awesome pirate sister that came back, or if she died an’ some weird clone a her’s came back.”

Val giggled. “Stupid, right?”

Romsca was silent for a moment, before she shook her head. “She did die. An’ I think I died in more ways’n one when Lask got me.”

“I was jist jokin’ sis ..”

“Well I ain’t.” Romsca insisted. “Ya told me I was gonna spill it if we got back from the raid onna city, an’ I think I better level with ya .. part’a me died, an’ part’a me was born that day. I met Ignasa face ta face. Ya jist can’t go back ta what ya was after somethin’ like that .. a part’a me rose up. I’ve always hated the way things are, with Ublaz, with what we do as pirates, but I was too afraid ta do nothin’. After he spoke ta me, all that changed .. I’m ready ta fight fer what I believe is right .. I’ve never felt this kind of passion before!”

She stopped, hanging her head. “An’ then I remember I’m just one beast. That I can’t save everybeast .. that I’m so much weaker than Ublaz, an’ I always will be .. an’ somehow .. I just know ..”

Romsca broke off, and Val kept stroking her hair with the brush, listening in silence. “I know somehow .. he’s gonna win in the end.”

“Why would ya say that?” Val sounded alarmed. “He’s not alwuys won a’fore, an’ we gotta hope we can best him now .. we got the dragons!”

“The dragons fear his Monitors!” Romsca snapped a little. An’ yes, he’s always won, some way or another. Yea, I survived when he killed me dad, but it was cause he was playin’ with me. I killed all the Monitors on me ship, but me whole crew died doin’ it! Xzaris lived, but he’s blind now .. we got the woodlanders out ..”

She paused. “Ya know, I think that’s one’a the first times I kin honestly say he didn’t win.”

Val grinned. “See? That’s somethin’, an’ nobeast died. Ya know, as much as I hate lyin’ here, I really did get off real lucky .. ya know that spotty mouse that lifted the horse off me? Ya have any idea where he is, cause I wanna thank him .. fer a liddle mouse he’s like .. crazy strong.”

Romsca sighed, willingly pulling her thoughts away from Ublaz. “I donno, but yer right, I gotta thank him too. Things would’a been a lot worse without him.”

The two fell into silence, uncharacteristic for Val, before she once again broke it in her usually cheery mood. “So, I talked ta Shui while ya was out, an’ she got me some scale dye .. but it should work fine on hair.”

“Ehh ..” Romsca begin, before Val broke in curiously.

“What was ya up ta last night? Cause Shui didn’t actually tell me.”

Romsca sighed, shaking her head as she fabricated a half-truth. “We was jist workin’ fer Lord Isan is all.”

Val might have said more, but there was a slight rustle of fabric nearby. Both creatures looked in the general direction, and found the otter staring at them with his light amber eyes.

Silence filled the healing chambers, until he asked bewilderedly, “Where am I? Am I dead?”

Val grinned reassuringly. “Don’t think so, ya kin talk can’t ya?”

“Uh ..” He seemed at a loss for words. “The Emperor captured us .. we were in the dungeons .. where is this place?”

He paused only a moment, before looking at Romsca. “Wait, I remember you. You .. saved me, didn’t you?”

“I had help.” Romsca shrugged. “But yea, I was part’a that.”

“You’re one of them though, aren’t you?” He sounded completely confused.

Romsca met his gaze for a moment, before sighing, “I was once. But I ain’t no more. I’m against Ublaz, if’n that’s what yer askin’.”

The otter tried to sit up, but fell back with a pained wince. Romsca shook her head. “Best advice is ta not do that .. I ain’t no healer, but I’m surprised ya lived, honestly. Ya had ‘nough rips in yer back I don’t imagine there was a whole lotta skin left ..”

She broke off as Val cuffed her over the head. “That ain’t encouragin’!”

“It wasn’t meant ta be, I was jist warnin’ him is all.”

Val rolled her eyes, and the otter seemed to contemplate this a moment, before asking, “But where am I?”

“It’s called the Vale of Dragons.” Romsca informed him. “It’sa system a caves in the mountains a Sampetra.”

“Oh.” He seemed somewhat content for a moment, before asking quickly, “What about the others?”

Val pointed at Hood, lying on a fabricated bed on the opposite side of her hammock. “Wull the fox is over there.”

Romsca broke in, nodding, “And the other woodlanders is fine. Grath was jist here.”

“Is she ok?” He sounded concerned.

Val shrugged. “Ehhh .. think so. She’s jist dealin’ with some emotional trauma right now, s’far as I can tell. Not all that surprizin’, I’m pickin’ up that Ublaz really messed with her head an’ now she’s stuck in a city with us an’ dragons. If I was inn’er shoes, I’d probably be actin’ purty crazy ta .. if I could walk I’d try’n cheer her up .. but I’m stuck her fer a good while.”

Romsca shook her head. “Maybe that’s best. She might jist need some time alone, I know I would.”

The otter looked at her a moment, before turning his gaze to the ceiling with its dangling firestones. A moment passed, before he looked back at the two vermin, stating, “I’m Inbar Trueflight, though you might have known that. Who are you?”

“I’m Val Bloodpaws! Nice ta meet ya, even if the circumstances ain’t the best.”

“Romsca a the Dragons.” Romsca introduced herself, leaving out the captain in her title. She seemed to have lost it anyway.

Inbar nodded after a moment, and silence again filled the healing chambers. Yanse was out, Shell was asleep, and there really didn’t seem to be a lot to talk about. Or maybe it was really that they all felt awkward in each other’s presence.

However, Inbar soon drifted off to sleep again, and Romsca fell into dark contemplation and plotting. Val was undoubtedly the beast enjoying themselves the most, as she blocked out her problems by applying rather vibrant color to Romsca’s hair.

><><

Ublaz stood still, a faint smile curling across his muzzle. The blue glow illuminating his face distorted his features slightly, alternating from light gray browns to deep shadows.

The pearl sat on its cushion in the vault he kept it in, sitting in one of the many treasure rooms. He often went to see it, to gaze upon it and dream of the things he could someday accomplish with it, but in light of the last few days, he’d had no time.

And now it was glowing.

He lifted in from the vault, being careful to only touch its decorative cushion, and he smiled wider.

At long last, his waiting was going to pay off.

Ublaz slowly replaced in, speaking not a word as he shut the vault again, locking it and putting the key in his belt.

He turned to the seven-foot Monitor beside him, ordering, “Tell General Sagitar to meet me in my chambers.”

The creature trod of obediently, and Ublaz left the treasure room, striding down the corridor that was decorated with silk hangings of pastel jade. What sun that was allowed in was minimal, as always, just enough to paint the palace in a soft wash of light.

Ublaz opened the door to his personal chambers, large enough to house a family of beasts, as that was their original intention.

He walked to his desk, stationed next to a silk curtained window, and slowly opened a drawer, lifting out a sheaf of ebony hair and looking at it for a moment.

A beast of his caliber made it their duty to know almost everything, and he knew well the properties of what he held in his paw. He’d just been biding his time, to see how things would pan out, and as fate had chosen to take the direction it had, he’d made his decision.

Ublaz walked into his bedroom, laying it on his dressing table and looking at his reflection in the mirror as he drew a small dagger, pausing momentarily before slicing a deep gash across his paw.

He winced slightly as blood splattered onto the dresser and mirror, running down his arm in thin streams as it seeped into his fur. Pain wasn’t something he felt much, in recent years. He was forgetting.

He picked up the hair, wrapping it around the wound methodically, quickly adjusting to the sting in his paw .. just like he’d quickly adjusted to the sting on his nose when the daughter of Lutra had cut him.

A moment passed, before the hair began to glow, softly, then brightly. Ublaz inhaled sharply as the light flared up with amazing brilliance, causing him to throw up his free paw, to shield his eyes. The cold began to flow up his arm, rushing throughout his entire body.

There was a heavy thud as the pine marten stumbled back, falling to the floor as the tips of his hair began to glow light blue and spiral down his back.

As quickly as it had started, the light vanished with a flash, leaving Ublaz sprawled on the floor, thick brown hair spilling down slightly past his middle back. He lay where he’d fallen for a moment, getting his breath back and blinking over and over. There was a sudden knock on the door of the outer chambers, along with Sagitar’s voice. “Sire?”

The door creaked open as she asked, “You called me?”

Ublaz scrambled to his feet in an exceptionally undignified manner, brushing his clothes off and trying to steady his voice.

“Wait where you are, General.”

Her footsteps stopped instantly, and Ublaz mentally cursed how shaken he sounded. He cast a glance and the hair he’d wrapped his paw in, to see it disintegrating in a silver shower of dust.

He quickly looked in the mirror, realizing his turban was slipping off his head and his hair was everywhere, and he scowled a little, smoothing it back.


TBC~ Romsca Romsca for signature The Terror of the seas 05:31, April 21, 2017 (UTC)

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